This I Know This Much Is True review contains no spoilers.
It’s possible that no limited series release in recent memory is as poorly timed* as HBO’s new drama I Know This Much Is True. The series is gorgeously written, well-made and features what may well be a career defining performance from star Mark Ruffalo. But it’s hard to imagine that anyone self-distancing at home, worried about their families, friends, and finances in the world of coronavirus, is going to enthusiastically tune into this grim, depressing tale of family struggle and compounding misery. This isn’t the series’ fault, of course, but it is an uncomfortable truth. *[Editor’s Note: the series was announced as slated for a spring release in January]*
Which is a shame, because I Know This Much Is True is technically great, a beautifully bleak and intensely dark piece of prestige television about the struggle of a pair of identical twins whose lives are beset by a seemingly unending stream of calamity and tragedy. If you thought the five-Kleenex melodrama of something like This is Us was the television apex of emotional devastation, well…you have no idea. This story encompasses the kind of sorrow that’s so crushing, you can’t even cry.
Viewers who remember Wally Lamb’s mega-popular 1990s novel of the same name are at least somewhat prepared for this. It clocks in at nearly 1,000 pages and was an Oprah’s Book Club pick back when that was still a thing that was happening. It’s hard to imagine this novel as a beach read, given that is essentially a pop culture version of the Biblical book of Job, but that happened. Maybe it’s why HBO thinks viewers will flock to this TV adaptation, and maybe they would have, in a different time, if only to tell people they’d watched it. Now? Probably not so much.
I Know This Much is True follows the story of Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, identical twins whose lives have always rotated around one another. Dominick is a divorced fortysomething construction worker; Thomas is a paranoid schizophrenic who hears voices and thinks the government is trying to implant listening devices in his teeth. Dominick has spent most of his life feeling trapped by his twin’s constant dependency and angry about how those needs have, in his mind, held him back from pursuing his own dreams. Thomas begins the first episode by committing a horrific act of violence against himself, insisting that his action is a sacrifice to pay for America’s sins.
In short: This is not a happy story, and this is not what you would call a fun watch. Like some macabre carnival, I Know This Much Is True has a little bit of everything awful: rape, assault, domestic abuse, child abuse, cancer, SIDS, self-harm, car accidents, racism, and incidental animal murder are just a few items in the smorgasbord of misery that unravels here.
Following Thomas’ violent act, he’s committed to a maximum-security mental hospital, and much of the plot of the series – such as it has one – is focused on Dominick’s attempts to get him released and moved to a less stringent facility. This story should be fairly straightforward, but Dominick’s efforts are inter-spliced with a variety of flashbacks covering everything from his crumbling marriage to the twins’ college years during the Vietnam War. Along the way, there’s even a significant detour to Old Country Italy, and several long sequences – with subtitles even! – detailing the dirtbag nature of the Birdsey grandfather who brought the family to America.
Even the look of the series itself is depressed and sorrowful. The run-down industrial town of Three Rivers is dank and crumbling, it always looks as though it’s about to rain, and the entire series is shot in a color palette comprised of little more than blues and grays. It’s hard to imagine that Dominick, Thomas, or any of their family ever had a chance in such a place.
It’s difficult to overstate the scope of Ruffalo’s performance throughout these six hours, which will absolutely win him an Emmy this year, or whenever we actually manage to have the Emmys again, and be 100% deserved. As critics, we always want to throw accolades at anyone who plays twins, but the complex way that Ruffalo fully inhabits two very different characters here is truly wonderful. Apparently, Ruffalo shot all his scenes as Dominick, and then the production went on an extended hiatus so he could gain thirty pounds and change almost everything about his physical appearance to play Thomas.
This method gives both men a fully realized, lived in quality and there are long stretches of this miniseries where you’ll probably forget that Ruffalo is acting opposite himself in at least 50% of its scenes. His performance as Thomas is, by necessity, showier, as he’s the twin most likely to assault hospital orderlies or start raving about government conspiracies and attempted murder. But his Dominick is the more layered effort, mixing rage, sorrow, guilt and pain into a potent cocktail of constantly doomed struggle.
Ruffalo is buoyed by a generally fantastic supporting cast. Rosie O’Donnell is particularly great as a no-nonsense social worker assigned to Thomas’ case, who forces Dominick to face some uncomfortable truths about both himself and his relationship with his brother. Other standouts include Archie Panjabi as a soothing, competent psychiatrist, and John Procaccino as the Birdseys’ abusive stepfather who still manages to build a complicated relationship with both as adults. Juliette Lewis appears briefly as a memorably weird fling of Dominic’s, remarkable only because she’s a bright crack of unpredictable energy in Three Rivers’ world of gloom.
Unfortunately, at the end of the day, I Know This Much Is True ends up being the sort of television that feels like homework. And no matter how meticulously crafted, deeply thoughtful and well-acted it might be, there comes a point where we as viewers simply become a bit numb to the many awful things we’re watching unfold. Particularly when so many aspects of our real world lives – turning on the news, opening an internet browser, calling a friend – are fraught with their own kinds of darkness. Why would we subject ourselves to more of it here, for the hope of a platitude that may or may not ever come at the end?
I Know This Much is True premieres Sunday, May 10 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.