I Know This Much Is True: You Need to Watch This Show on HBO

Mark Ruffalo does double duty in moving family drama ‘I Know This Much is True,’ while Netflix’s ‘Into the Night’ is dreadful – but fun

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Mark Ruffalo as Thomas Birdsey, left, and identical twin brother Dominick in HBO's "I Know This Much is True."
Mark Ruffalo as Thomas Birdsey, left, and identical twin brother Dominick in HBO's "I Know This Much is True." Credit: HBO
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

I owe Jerry Seinfeld an apology.

In my recent review of his new Netflix special “23 Hours to Kill,” I boorishly stated that he should retire if he wasn’t prepared to come clean about his superrich life.

However, it only struck me afterward how Seinfeld had actually made a brilliantly meta reference to reflect his wealth: He deliberately made 1 percent of his new show funny in order to reflect his status in life. Good one, Jerry, you got us.

I was depressed enough by “23 Hours to Kill” – but, boy, that was a socially distanced walk in the park compared to HBO’s new show, “I Know This Much is True.” (HBO on Sunday evenings in the U.S.; Hot HBO on Mondays at 10 P.M., also Hot VOD and Next TV.; Yes Drama on Wednesdays at 9 P.M. and Yes VOD, and also Sting TV and Cellcom TV in Israel – so, basically, every screen apart from your ATM.)

Kudos to HBO for believing the world can handle such strong adult fare at a time when most people are seeking comfort by watching super-cute dog videos on social media – which reminds me: Olive and Mabel, thank you for your service.

I hope HBO is proved right, because this is a fantastic show. Yes, it contains many moments of grief and sorrow, but it also builds to a wonderfully satisfying payoff after six taut, engrossing episodes.

The series, based on the 1998 novel by Wally Lamb – and not, as some 1980s pop fans may have hoped, the Spandau Ballet lyric – can best be summed up by a line our protagonist utters in the concluding episode: “How many families do you know that have so much fucked-up shit happen to them?”

Yes, it is apparent that this is not going to be a tale of happy families as soon as you hear the words “Our stepfather Ray” early on: In the history of drama, nothing positive ever followed such a phrase. Indeed, that bleakness is established in the very first scene, which I won’t reveal – suffice it to say that those with a knowledge of Matthew 5:30 will be, er, forearmed for the horrors it contains.

There are many good reasons to watch “I Know…” – and two of them are Mark Ruffalo. He plays Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, identical twins who were born six minutes apart: Thomas on December 31, 1949; Dominick on New Year’s Day 1950. That short but significant gap also reflects the huge gulf in their lives.

When we join the “Brothers Grim” at the start of the 1990s, Thomas has spent the past 20 years in mental health facilities due to his paranoid schizophrenia; Dominick, meanwhile, was once a popular high school teacher, but that “fucked-up shit” has taken its toll. Truly, this is a man with more tragedy in his life than a Bee Gees tribute act.

In many ways, Derek Cianfrance’s drama can be seen as a touching counterpoint to “You Can Count on Me” – Kenneth Lonergan’s brilliant indie movie from 2000 that announced Ruffalo on the world stage. Here, too, we have a sensitive look at the burden on one sibling when they are doing all the caring, worrying and heavy lifting.

Ruffalo is a near-constant presence throughout the new series, with Dominick acting as our narrator for events from the 1950s to the ’90s. I could have done without these occasional voiceovers, to be honest, which felt too obviously lifted from the novel, adding little but portentousness. For example, when talking about the mystery at the heart of the show – who the twins’ father is – Dominick declaims: “Why had they kept him from us? Was the truth really that bad?”

Luckily, the show’s other devices work far better. I loved Dominick’s therapy sessions with Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi), her dispassionate tone a marked contrast to his barely suppressed ball of rage. I really wouldn’t have been surprised if he were to angrily rage at some point: “Congratulations, San Francisco – you’ve ruined pizza!”

Then there are his interactions with social worker Lisa Sheffer – a lovely performance from, believe it or not, Rosie O’Donnell – who is trying to get Thomas released from a maximum security facility (“This can be a very challenging environment for paranoid schizophrenics, it really can – people are actually watching you all of the time”).

Rosie O'Donnell as Lisa Sheffer in HBO's "I Know This Much is True."
Rosie O'Donnell as Lisa Sheffer in HBO's "I Know This Much is True."Credit: Sarah Shatz / HBO

The flashbacks to major moments in the twins’ lives are also key to laying the groundwork for the emotionally rewarding resolution – although this is also a show that offers occasional, well-earned moments of levity and uplift. The scenes when the twins are sharing a dorm at the University of Connecticut in the late ’60s, when Thomas’ health problems are becoming all too apparent, are particularly powerful.

There’s only one piece of backstory I found overripe: The recounting of the twins’ loathsome Sicilian grandfather’s arrival in America, based on his self-penned (and self-titled) memoir “A Great Man from Humble Beginnings,” an Italian manuscript Dominick received as a present from his mother.

Ruffalo dominates with his two brilliant performances; although the institutionalized, paunchy Thomas is rarely seen on screen, his occasional appearances offer an added emotional resonance. The actors playing the younger versions of the twins are also outstanding: Philip Ettinger subtly delineates how these identical twins are very different characters, and a special shout-out must go to young Rocco Masihi for his heartbreaking turn as eight-year-old Thomas.

Donnie and Rocco Masihi as twin brothers Dominick and Thomas Birdsey at age 8, in HBO's "I Know This Much is True."
Donnie and Rocco Masihi as twin brothers Dominick and Thomas Birdsey at age 8, in HBO's "I Know This Much is True." Credit: HBO

It’s debatable who will shed more tears in “IKTMIT”: Ruffalo’s Dominick or you, the viewer – because this is a tremendously moving story. It will also surely leave the actor needing to clear some space on his mantelpiece come awards season. For me, his most impressive feat was in convincing me that the roles of Dominick and Thomas were being played by two different actors.

I don’t even have enough room here to talk about brilliant secondary characters like Dominick’s best friend, Leo (Rob Huebel), who arguably gets the show’s best line (“You look like homeless Rocky”), and Dominick’s wife, Dessa (Kathryn Hahn, who just gets better in everything she does).

It may not be the cheeriest show you’ll see in 2020, but I know this much is true: you need to watch it.

The best worst show

As good as “I Know This Much is True” is, I needed something to lighten the mood afterward. Now, the only thing I find worse than hearing jazz music is listening to aficionados trying to convert me to their cause – jazzholes, if you will. So even though it came with the high pedigree of being co-directed by “La La Land” and “Whiplash” director Damien Chazelle, I skipped “The Eddy” in favor of another Netflix show – “Into the Night.”

I found this Belgian thriller via the “Top 10 in Israel” list, something I hitherto regarded in much the same way I would an Iranian person bragging about bringing home a six-figure sum every month – something that appears impressive but doesn’t really amount to very much.

All the “Top 10” list really tells us is that a lot of young people in Israel watch Netflix, hence the likes of “Too Hot to Handle,” “Outer Banks,” “Never Have I Ever,” “The Flash” and “Riverdale” in the charts.

Every so often, though, a curio creeps onto the list. A few weeks ago, it was the Turkish film “Miracle in Cell No. 7,” which Netflix categorizes simply as “Emotional.” Now it’s “Into the Night,” which may sound like a late-era Leonard Cohen song but is actually the best worst show I have seen in a while.

Honestly, it isn’t very good – but damned if I couldn’t stop watching to the end.

This sci-fi thriller is set onboard BE Airlines Flight 21 to Moscow – until someone storms on board, gun ablazing, and demands that they head west instead (surely not the first time that’s happened to a Moscow-bound flight). Said hijacker is an Italian NATO officer with inside information that people worldwide are dying as soon as the sun rises. It’s something to do with solar polarity, apparently – but they lost me at “so...”

“Into the Night” has no pretentions at being anything other than a “park your brain at the door and climb aboard” ride, but boy is it a mess. With lines like “A man isn’t defined by his mistakes” and “Don’t let your past define your present,” it makes “Lost” sound like it was written by Eugene O’Neill. It also features so many hammy performances, a pig farm has a better chance of receiving kosher certification.

Looks like they picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue: Pauline Etienne and Laurent Capelluto in Netflix's "Into the Night."
Looks like they picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue: Pauline Etienne and Laurent Capelluto in Netflix's "Into the Night."Credit: NETFLIX

Indeed, at times it feels like the show’s main inspiration was “Airplane!” – from the sick kid on board to this exchange between the pilot (who definitely picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue) and Sylvie, a young passenger helping him fly the plane:

Pilot: “You fly helicopters?”

Sylvie: Shifts awkwardly in seat. “Flew.”

Still, best see “Into the Night” now before an American remake achieves the near-impossible and makes it even dumber.

And finally, this has been a tough year for lovers of “Cats.” So hopefully this tweet from the musical's original star will put a smile on some faces...

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