HBO’s Mosaic is a six part murder mystery set around the death of children’s book author Victoria Lake. Originally conceived of as an interactive web series that could be approached through different characters’ points of view, it plays a little oddly when fashioned into a conventional TV drama. It has enough strength and direction to remain engaging, though the narrative threads can peter out at times. It’s an entertaining and engaging return to work by director Steven Soderbergh, aided by a capable cast.
Mosaic is one of HBO’s lower key dramas. A six part show, it was conceived as an interactive web series where the contents of the story could be approached from a multiplicity of character viewpoints. The central narrative focuses on the death of children’s author Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone). Eric Neill (Frederick Weller) is in jail for her murder but as the series unfolds, it seems more and more likely that he has been set up. Much of the early episodes are rooted in flashbacks that tell the story of Lake’s life in a small, upscale Aspen town. At first, her life seems charmed and privileged but we see that her relationships (both social and romantic) are fraught with misery and combativeness.
Lake’s not a likable person – self-centred, bitter, needy, and dismissive, her only true friend seems to be J.C. Schiffer (Paul Reubens). What Stone and Reubens (as a gay character, no less) are doing as best friends is anyone’s guess. It’s only one of numerous unlikely facets in this mysterious and forgotten gem. Given that it’s HBO, we expect something sinister tying the whole plot (like perhaps a True Detective or neo-noir revelation) but instead, it’s a sprawling character piece – a mural or a mosaic. When one learns that this series was primarily developed to be told through multiple interactive pov’s, it makes a lot more sense, as does the fact that director Steven Soderbergh didn’t do many takes when shooting scenes.
Because it’s HBO, it’s still pretty good. However, the way the narrative plays out (when watched linearly) is mildly strange and puzzling. We focus on Lake intensely before she suddenly disappears. A young man called Joel (Garrett Hedlund), a struggling comics artist and illustrator no less, looks up to Lake. When he gets picked up at a party by her and given a place to live in exchange for manual work around her property, it soon becomes clear that Lake doesn’t actually respect Joel’s talents, uses him for manual labour even while leading him on, and delivers enough awkwardly provocative middle aged innuendo to leave no doubt that she expects a tryst. When con man Eric comes along and wins Lake’s high-maintenance heart, she throws Joel away and demands arrears in rent.
Stone gives herself to this unlikable role. Even while employing her trademark smug delivery, we can see that it masks self-loathing, a lack of confidence, and depression. Neither a very strong nor a very weak actor, one who can never escape the vortex of the sexy roles which made her famous in the first place, this role is similar to the one she had in Martin Scorsese’s Casino in that it holds potential for texture and revelation, though Stone never quite takes it to the place it needs to go.
Part of the blame lies with director Steven Soderbergh. I love Soderbergh’s films but he sometimes coasts through them. Possessing a great eye for framing and shooting and an inveterate naturalistic feel, his films can also feel lukewarm when it comes time to take things all the way. This is not to detract from all the great films he’s made from Sex, Lies, and Videotape onwards – it’s just he needs to tie things up better. After meeting Joel Hurley and Olivia Lake, we meet married police people Nate and Melissa Henry (Devin Ratray and Zandy Hartig) but the character who really comes to the forefront of the narrative is Eric’s sister Petra (Jennifer Ferrin). Petra insists on following leads and reopening old wounds. Though Nate Henry is at first sympathetic and then later frustrated at her and Joel’s snooping around, she achieves inroads. Perhaps all of the oddness can be ascribed to rearranging the narrative from the interactive version into something more straightforward – I’m not sure.
I was mostly floored by the fact that Joel is an aspiring comics artist. The writer (Ed Solomon – his resume boasts interesting gigs from Laverne & Shirley to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to It’s Garry Shandling’s Show) obviously is a comics fan because he sprinkles in references that only a comics fan would know. Early on, one of Joel’s friends asks him if he’s Kirby or Moebius as if these are the two definitive poles on the spectrum, though the one drawing we see by Joel looks like it’s influenced by neither. At another point in the show, Joes states he wouldn’t be impressed by any gallery’s art collection unless it boasted pieces by Brian Bolland or Will Eisner. Even Victoria Lake drops the odd name such as Frank Miller although she never really seems comfortable or familiar with how to pronounce them. For all these sprinkled references, neither Joel nor the other actors nor the show itself seem to really have a handle on the world of comics they’re referring to. That’s ultimately sad as it’d be a rare treat for comics aficionados see their world meaningfully represented through HBO’s dramatic landscape. In lieu of Tony Soprano stopping by a comics store on new comics day or Jamie Lannister lining up at San Diego for a sketch from Barry Windsor-Smith, this is all we’re going to get.
On the whole, Mosaic is worth watching though it might not be as memorable as other great murder mysteries. It achieves the HBO seal of approval and mercifully confines itself to the length of six episodes. It adheres to that adage that if you can’t be a success, you should at least have the sense to be chic and succinct.