Not content with interfering in elections, dumbing down electorates and knowing more about us than our own mothers, Facebook is now moving into the world of entertainment with Facebook Watch, a video-on-demand platform that rolled out internationally at the end of August.
The social media colossus should have come up with something a little less sinister-sounding than Facebook Watch, which is the kind of thing a prescient 3-year-old might say while ominously pointing to a parent’s laptop. For a minuscule fee I would have suggested something crazy like “Facebook TV.” Your loss, Zuckerberg.
When it debuted in America last year, the service seemed to be hoping to ensnare youngsters by premiering some bland teen dramas. Big mistake – teenagers never want to be seen in the same place as their parents, especially on social media.
Now, though, Facebook seems to be accepting who its users really are (the real ones, anyway) and repositioning its content accordingly – remembering that the average age of a Facebook user in America is reportedly 40, with 25-34 the most common age group.
The social media site has apparently earmarked $1 billion for original content this year, and its first high-profile drama offering, “Sorry for Your Loss,” has just debuted. (I’d like to think that Facebook had to buy the “Sorry for Your Loss” name from a particularly web-friendly firm of accountants.)
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While most of us are used to watching video online these days, it still feels strange to be watching an original show on Facebook. It doesn’t help that, right next to the embedded screen, there’s a box showcasing user comments – which I skimmed through but found impossible to read without hearing a Russian accent (on the plus side, at least they weren’t still blaming Hillary Clinton for everything).
“Sorry for Your Loss” drops two new episodes every Tuesday, with the 10 x 30 minute series concluding on October 9. Yet while the means of delivery is new, on the surface there’s not much fresh about the show’s actual concept – which examines how the death of a loved one impacts their nearest and dearest.
When I watched, it seemed that the vast majority of users had stopped watching after the first episode: While about 3.7 million had seen episode one by early October, that fell to a mere 63,000 for the second installment. As rapid declines go, that's right up there with Gary Hart's in 1987.
My advice, though, is to give it a couple of episodes and let the show’s warmth, heart and sly wit slowly work its magic.
I’d guess the steep drop-off is due to the fundamental obstacles the show places in front of itself. First, there’s the milieu. A New Agey mom and her two daughters running an L.A. exercise studio, doing a “ballet-yoga-Pilates combo thing,” sounds like a “Saturday Night Live” pastiche rather than an authentic setting for a drama. Initially, it’s hard to know whether to laugh at or with these characters.
Second, the protagonist, Leigh Shaw (Elizabeth Olson), is by her own admission, “a raging bitch to everyone within a 10-mile radius” as she struggles to come to terms with the death of her husband, Matt (Mamoudou Athie – last seen playing Grandmaster Flash in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Get Down”). This may make it difficult for some to take to her character, even if she is in mourning.
I myself must admit to being sniffy about her and the show for the first 30 minutes, and its rather staid presentation of flashbacks (which comprise about a third of the total running time) was not helpful. After a show like HBO’s “Sharp Objects,” which provided a master class in how to seamlessly splice together the past and present, “Loss” feels rather old-fashioned by comparison. Flashbacks unfold as the central character stares into the middle distance after her memory is triggered by something. Also, the use of gray tones for the present and warmer tones suggesting literally sunnier times in the past seems too easy.
If I’d stopped watching after one episode, I’d have written the show off as simply a showcase for the considerable talents of Olsen (the sister of John Oliver’s favorite “non-twins,” Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen), specifically her ability to cry us a river. Put it like this, when I say “Sorry for Your Loss” is streaming on Facebook, I really mean Olsen’s eyes are streaming on Facebook. If we could just find a way to desalinate those tears, we would surely have a long-term solution to the California water crisis.
A darker past
So what changes? Well, for starters, you get to see beyond the characters’ familiar traits. Leigh’s mom, Amy (redoubtable British actor Janet McTeer), is firstly presented as a crystal-hugging hippie, prone to statements about getting in touch with her inner child and her past life as a, er, medieval assassin. But she’s also a single mom struggling to cope with one distraught daughter, while the other, Jules, is a recovering addict who has always been the family screwup. (Jules is endearingly played by Kelly Marie Tran, who, irony alert, was trolled mercilessly on platforms such as Facebook after daring to take up too much screen time in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”)
Another key shift is that the flashbacks between Leigh and Matt stop being “Look at us dancing quirkily around our new home – aren’t we just the cutest couple ever?” and start showing a darker, more troubled past featuring black dogs, sleeping dogs and dying dogs. (Only one of those isn’t a metaphor.)
The most significant difference is that it’s impossible not to warm to Leigh or feel for her plight. The moment the show really clicked for me was in episode three, where she is approached by another young widow, Becca (Lauren Robertson). Explaining why they will never be friends, Leigh compares herself to Courtney Love and Becca to Jackie O. And while the direction this particular storyline takes isn’t necessarily surprising, it feels genuine and its tears are well earned – from both cast and audience.
Most intriguing is the strained relationship between Leigh and her partner’s brother, Danny (another British actor, Jovan Adepo), as they duel over who has more right to wallow in their misery. As he puts it, “I’m having an objectively shittier time than you – because you can get another husband, but I can’t just get another brother.” There’s even a laugh-out-loud moment when he sends Leigh a message suggesting he could “Anne Frank” (i.e., hide) a stray dog in his apartment, to which she responds: “People don’t use Anne Frank as a verb.”
The show generally strikes the right tone between sad and sassy. It’s the first drama from a promising young L.A. writer called Kit Steinkellner and, while it’s not based on her own experience, it is inspired by an incident in which she woke up in the middle of the night to find that her husband hadn’t returned home, and started to fear the worst. This nightmare scenario is recreated in the first episode, giving Olsen’s tear ducts another solid workout.
“Sorry for Your Loss” could have worked just as well as a two-hour weepie at the cinema. But while I don’t know what its long-term prospects are – especially now that Olsen is set to star in a new, big-budget Disney TV series about her Scarlet Witch character from the “Avengers” series – I could happily spend many more hours with all of these characters. And it’s not often I say that on Facebook.