Grief is a very tough sell as the subject of an ongoing TV show. Whatever catharsis the dramatization might offer in short bursts, the potential for the “Why am I still watching this?” reflex is incredibly high.
The Leftovers tried to alleviate this problem by wrapping the whole idea in sci-fi craziness (not that it did much good, ratings-wise). Showtime’s new Kidding has the benefit of Jim Carrey, but still seems afraid of getting too close, too often, to the feelings of loss that are ripping his character apart.
Sorry for Your Loss — the newest scripted series to come out of Facebook Watch — doesn’t have a high concept or lion sex boat parties, and it doesn’t have a beloved comedy star to get viewers to look past the sorrow at its core. It is a simple idea presented in low-fi fashion, albeit with a lot of high-end talent like Elizabeth Olsen involved: Olsen’s Leigh trying to reassemble her life three months after the unexpected death of her husband Matt (Mamoudou Athie).
So the drama (it debuts September 18; I’ve seen four episodes) does two smart things to compensate for how much of a bummer it might seem.
First, it understands that even the process of mourning isn’t emotionally monotonous. Leigh is obviously dominated by pain and confusion over why this happened and what to do next, but her life and the show also have room for humor, mystery and more. Unable to so much as reenter the apartment she and Matt shared, Leigh has moved back in with her New Age mom Amy (Janet McTeer) and recovering addict sister Jules (Kelly Marie Tran from Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and, at the time the story begins, the three women are getting profoundly on each other’s nerves. There’s some light and very human comedy to be found in their relationships, and in the ways that Leigh resists certain aspects of the grief industrial complex. (When a young military widow shows up to her support group with impeccable makeup and a flowery written monologue about her late husband, it’s all Leigh can do not to heckle her.) Unlike Kidding, the show never runs away from its own subject matter, but it’s not a tearful wallow, either. It’s sad, but never oppressively so.
Second, Sorry for Your Loss is part of the welcome new wave of half-hour dramas. (See also: Starz’s Vida and upcoming shows like FX’s Mr Inbetween and Amazon’s Homecoming.) There are certain stories that simply can’t sustain themselves in 60-minute increments, or even the 40-plus of an hour-long drama with ad breaks; those extra 10 to 30 minutes can easily turn an interesting idea into a slog. Each installment of this show thoroughly explores one or two aspects of Leigh’s new reality, then takes a break before it all feels self-indulgent.
The series was created by playwright Kit Steinkellner, and it has a theatrical feel in ways both good and occasionally frustrating. It’s an excellent showcase for Olsen, who’s much less intense here than she usually is in her movie roles. Leigh is hurt and numb, but she’s also a person trying to get through her day without wanting to throttle her mother, her sister or Matt’s brother Danny (Jovan Adepo, transitioning seamlessly from similar, if more fantastical, ground on The Leftovers). There are moments, when Leigh is teaching a spin class or having lunch with a friend, during which she’s able to momentarily push Matt’s death out of her head, and she feels real and even relaxed when that happens. And the series smartly toggles between her difficult present and her earlier life with Matt, the latter scenes offering respite from the grief even as they reveal the marriage as a deeply imperfect one that’s only complicating Leigh’s feelings now that Matt is gone.
(There’s also a question of how well Leigh actually knew her husband, which is the element most useful for making this a long-form story but the least interesting in execution so far.)
Olsen and her co-stars are so effectively understated (with help from a murderer’s row of directors that includes James Ponsoldt, Allison Anders and Jessica Yu) that the biggest weakness of the show is that the characters tend to articulate everything they’re feeling, often at great length. There’s not a lot of room for subtext, despite performances that seem perfectly suited to it. Maybe that’s Steinkellner’s relative inexperience writing for the screen (her only previous TV credit was Amazon’s short-lived Z: The Beginning of Everything). Or it’s her and the rest of the creative team (including Lizzy Weiss from Switched at Birth as showrunner) feeling they have to spell things out quickly given the half-hour format. Whatever the reason, the series is most effective when we’re seeing the characters’ emotions — whether it’s Jules chafing against her family’s low expectations for her, or Leigh unexpectedly finding things in common with the war widow — rather than hearing about them.
Talking things out is part of the grieving process, too, though. The dialogue can feel self-consciously arch, but it isn’t necessarily out of character for what’s happening to this family.
I wish I could inform you that Facebook Watch’s scripted efforts are easy to write off when we all have too many quality shows to watch in too many places. But <em>Sorry for Your Loss</em> knows what kind of story it’s telling, how to tell it well and how to avoid many of the inherent pitfalls that would instantly repel audiences. It’s good — and an early feather in the cap of this young operation.