In the hands of director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Magic Mike, the Ocean’s trilogy), you would expect a murder mystery to be stylish, seductively noir and slightly offbeat.
His six-part series Mosaic ticks all those boxes, but for all that, the mechanics of the whodunit are surprisingly straightforward.
A lonely middle-aged children’s author, Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone), vanishes overnight in a small wintry Utah town and is presumed murdered.
Among the suspects: her fiance Eric (Frederick Weller); her handsome young tenant Joel (Garrett Hedlund); wealthy neighbours Tom (Michael Cerveris) and Michael (James Ransone), who want her to sell them her property so they can mine a rare metal; and Alan (Beau Bridges), a former police chief.
It ends in an anticlimax; even after one glaringly obvious fake-out, the denouement will surprise no one. But you expect more because of the elaborate path it took to get there.
There are the layers of mutual deception in Olivia and Eric’s courtship and the idea of the long con. There is also the scintillating nugget of an idea that is never fully developed: the choose-your-own- adventure element in Olivia’s book, also a nod to the Mosaic app created to accompany the show, which lets viewers in some countries rearrange parts of the story or view extra material (it is not available in Singapore).
There are also a couple of nice character detours that end up being some of the most enjoyable, well-scripted scenes in the show. After the breathy overacting of Stone and Weller, the dynamics between police detective Nate (Devin Ratray), his wife and Eric’s sister Petra (Jennifer Ferrin) are refreshing, and the story livens up because of them.
VIEW IT / MOSAIC
New episodes premiere today and tomorrow on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) at 9am, with an encore at 8pm and the final two episodes airing back to back on Saturday at 9am. Stream the series on HBO GO or watch it on HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602).
There will also be a marathon telecast of the series on the weekend of Feb 10 and 11, from 10am on HBO Signature (StarHub TV Channel 603). From Monday, the first episode of the HBO Original series Mosaic will also be available for free to all viewers across Asia, both subscribers and non-subscribers, for two weeks on www.hboasia.com.
THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE: AMERICAN CRIME STORY
Thursdays, 10pm, FX (Singtel TV Channel 310, StarHub TV Channel 507)
Petra is one of those glacial female leads Soderbergh loves to cast and she suddenly turns Nancy Drew and becomes the main character midway through. She is serviceable enough as such, but is curiously lacking in charisma.
The show is also filmed in either a cold blue-grey light or fuzzy oranges and yellows, with a few claustrophobic angles and shots where people look directly into the camera for no good reason.
This throws you off balance – which is not a bad thing. But combine that with the lurching narrative and randomly strewn motifs and it begins to feel like a haphazard, not-quite-successful experiment.
The Assassination Of Gianni Versace is about a murder too, but there is no mystery here: Most of the audience know serial killer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) shot and killed Versace (Edgar Ramirez), the fashion designer, on the steps of his Miami home in 1997.
The story begins as it means to continue – like an opera-slash- classical tragedy. The wordless eight-minute opening sequence set to swelling classical music leads up to the shooting and is staged with director Ryan Murphy’s (Glee, American Horror Story) trademark theatricality.
Versace, a Roman emperor in a billowing pink robe, wakes up in his opulent mansion, his life contrasted with that of Cunanan, who sits on the beach outside picking at scabs and throwing up in a public toilet.
The series is nowhere near as rich or compelling as the previous instalment in the American Crime Story anthology – The People V. O.J. Simpson – but is similarly laden with social commentary.
Both Versace and Cunanan are gay men marginalised by society and with humble origins. But one pulls himself up by his bootstraps, while the other grows envious of Versace and others’ success and seeks fame and power by killing them.
The lackadaisical efforts by law enforcement to catch Cunanan despite many leads after his prior killings also point to the homophobia of the time.
The stigma of being gay and closeted is also what made Cunanan’s victims more vulnerable – their lives were lived in the shadows, which made it easier for him to get away and harder for them to get help.
Touchingly, the show devotes considerable time to exploring this with his less famous victims, such as Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell) and wife Marilyn (Judith Light).
Still, the narrative frequently slows to a stately pace that becomes annoying after a while – this is not economical storytelling.
And some of the acting is a little bloated, notably with Penelope Cruz, who is semi-ridiculous as Versace’s sister Donatella, a blonde Morticia Adams who does not speak so much as intone her dialogue.
Cunanan is the most compelling of them all though – and Criss steals the show illuminating the dark corners of his soul.
As hard as the series tries to elevate Versace’s side of it – possibly overstating his cultural significance in the process – the result is a lopsided tale and probably unintentionally so. They had to put Versace’s name in the title, of course, but this is really Cunanan’s story.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2018, with the headline 'Messy Mosaic '. Print Edition | Subscribe
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