This is a spoiler-free review of the first five episodes of Feud.
Feud creator Ryan Murphy is one of the most reliable and reliably confusing individuals in the TV industry.
There’s no doubt he has both talent and vision. His series Nip/Tuck along with Shawn Ryan’s The Shield helped put FX on the map as a serious destination for dramatic storytellers and outside-the-box thinkers. The debut season of his American Crime Story anthology The People vs. O.J. Simpson was mind-bendingly, transcendently good. But then there are the Glees, which became an excruciating parody of itself…oh, about three episodes in. And the American Horror Storys which are…I don’t know, man. Just weird.
Aside from his successes and failures (though it’s worth mentioning that even what we would classify as creative “failures” are overwhelming popular successes. And failure is a bit harsh of a word too), however, Murphy is truly doing the Lord’s work for television as an artistic medium. His penchant for anthology series that run however many episodes they want to and his cache to get them made is fundamentally changing TV for the better. Every time you watch a prestige drama that runs for eight to ten episodes instead of 22-24, thank Ryan Murphy.
Feud is another entrant into the Murphy anthology universe following the lead of American Horror Story, Scream Queens and American Crime Story. The first season, Bette and Joan, retells the Hollywood legend of aging movie star actresses Joan Crawford (played by Jessica Lange here) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) as they clash on and off the set of their 1962 comeback film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
The series is simultaneously a tender love letter to unspoken heroes and victims of old-timey Hollywood misogyny and a furious feminist fist to the face.
It’s also good.
That right there is the real story of Feud: Bette and Joan. Murphy has proven himself to be capable of crafting both wonderful, generation-defining art and disposable genre garbage-adjacent nonsense. Feud: Bette and Joan, however, is good. Just merely good.
I don’t intend that to be a slight to the show or a rave in its favor. It’s just the most economical and accurate way that Feud can be described. It’s a good show. And that might make it Murphy’s most unexpected and welcome achievements yet.
Naturally, the “goodness” begins with the leads. Hell, they’re great. Jessica Lange’s late-career modest Murphy-driven career renaissance continues in her role as Joan Crawford. The majority of the pilot focuses on the beginning of events from her perspective. It’s a smart move narratively to give the audience one protagonist to latch onto before the “second” one enters the action and Lange really spreads out into the character and creates a believably fragile and furious Hollywood creation.
Joan is a bit long in the tooth and looking for a comeback vehicle. After getting completely shut out from the rest of Hollywood she fishes out a script for herself in the guise of a B-movie thriller book and an old director friend to make it. To get the movie made, however, and to ensure its Oscar chances she’ll need to bring in another star.
It’s easy to make Joan Crawford feel larger than life because she was. So Lange checkmarks that box early on and then gets into the real work. Watching Lange’s Joan massage her own elbows reflexively, just to get the wrinkles to disappear for maybe just long enough to get through the next big Hollywood meeting never gets less fascinating or heartbreaking.
Sarandon as Bette Davis is equally marvelous. Her Bette is at first more of a passive creature than Joan but it’s a performance that becomes more richly realized as the episodes go on. Both Joan and Bette are explosive and dramatic but Sarandon is better at hiding her character’s pain, which in a strange, paradoxical way makes her pain even more apparent.
The roles of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis seem custom built in a lab for famous actresses to chew scenery. And there is plenty of scenery-chewing from each party but it’s always in service of the plot. Funnily enough, the two big male supportings roles of director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) and Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) are better fits for the scenery chewing supporting character nonsense we’ve come to expect from these stories. Tucci in particular looks like he’s having the time of his damn life.
While the performances are almost uniformly great (even Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka who excels at playing a bad performer), some storytelling nuts and bolts problem-solving keep the show from greatness. I credited Murphy earlier for using his influence to allow shows to be as short or as long as they need to be. In the case of Bette and Joan, eight episodes may have been the wrong number.
It’s impossible to say without seeing the whole series but it seems like the show should have been more focused with fewer episodes or more expansive and epic with more. Episodes two and three cover a lot of the same ground and blend together while the singularly focused episode five is spectacular to the point where it almost renders the rest of the series unnecessary.
Then there is the expository dialogue as there is wont to be in a real-life story this richly detailed. To get a sense of the context for this feud between two powerful Hollywood players, the viewer needs to know their history. Since, “just Google it” is still not quite an acceptable option for biographic shows like these, Murphy has to fill in the blanks with either flashbacks or expository dialogue. He chooses the latter along with a “from the future” framing device. Neither really works.
Regardless of its technical faults though the show does come from a real place of empathy. It’s always exhilarating to watch or listen to someone discuss a topic they’re truly passionate about. The story of how Hollywood politics destroyed these two women’s psyches and pitted them against each other is clearly a topic that Murphy and all else involved feel strongly about. Even some of the overly-expository or theme-explaining dialogue can be forgiven if one imagines it’s simply the writer telling you the story breathlessly over drinks.
Feud: Bette and Joan is like Ryan Murphy’s old Hollywood version of Drunk History where it’s the actors who drink instead of the storyteller.
And it’s good.