Two Sad Mark Ruffalos: Does Anyone Really Want to Watch Depressing TV Right Now?
HBO’s “I Know This Much Is True” is a relentless march of tragedy. It’s also very good. But with a pandemic driving TV fans to reality TV and comedies, will anyone want to watch?
The new HBO series I Know This Much Is True is excellent. It’s also incredibly depressing. Relentlessly, viscerally depressing. Right now, with the lot of us staring grimly out the window yearning for just a whiff of hope, is a hell of a time for HBO to show one of the most emotionally draining dramas to hit TV in years.
Of course, no one could have predicted a pandemic when HBO scheduled I Know This Much Is True’s premiere for this Sunday.
Featuring a jaw-dropping dual lead performance from Mark Ruffalo, as twin brothers Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, with indie darling Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) writing and directing each episode, it was going to be another remarkably executed limited series from an A-list movie star and a film-world auteur—not run-of-the-mill by any means, but an expected kind of marquee offering in the age of prestige cable and streaming television.
Now it’s a litmus test for how much patience people have for watching TV that, regardless of good writing, ace acting, and wrenching insight into the human condition, kind of just makes them feel sad.
It’s at odds with the way we’re talking about and consuming TV at the moment. Escapist, frothy reality TV, from dating shows like Love Is Blind to the boozy antics of The Real Housewives of New York, are being touted as blissful diversions from the crush of actual reality. Critics are championing comedies like One Day at a Time and Insecure for their ability to “save us all” with their humor.
Viewers have been retreating to “comfort food” shows like The Golden Girls and Law & Order: SVU, which have ranked in Hulu’s top 10 in recent weeks. And the only match for the lunacy-inducing news of recent months, it seems, has been the demented, unscrupulous machinations of one Tiger King.
There’s nothing diverting, comforting, or cheerful about I Know This Much Is True, aside from any endorphins produced from awe in how specifically and powerfully it manages to chart the pain of its twin protagonists. It’s great television, but it’s depressing as hell, raising the question: Does anyone have the patience for anything this sad right now?
Adapted from Wally Lamb’s 1998 novel, the series opens with one lead character screaming a hysterical diatribe about God and oil politics, brandishing a knife in a crowded public library, and cutting off his own hand. Tommy Birdsey (Ruffalo) is a paranoid schizophrenic, and believes the action to be a religious sacrifice.
His well-meaning twin brother Dominick (also Ruffalo) rushes to the hospital, where he upholds Tommy’s decision not to reattach the hand, and then accompanies him, in a brutal sequence, to the maximum security institution where Tommy will wait—and certainly suffer—for sentencing and more permanent placement.
Dominick has been rushing to Tommy’s side for the brothers’ entire lives, as we learn through four decades of flashbacks that play out through the series. But the burden of Tommy’s episodes is not the only tragic weight Dominick is shouldering.
They grew up with an abusive stepfather. They never met their father. Their mother (Melissa Leo) is dying of cancer. Dominick’s wife left him. By the time, early on in the series, that Dominick learns that he won’t be able to get Tommy out of the max-sec institution and he won’t be able to visit him, I wrote in my notes, “Geez, how much more upsetting can this guy’s life get?” I kid you not, as I finished that sentence, a baby died.
I wish I could say this is the inspiring story of how a man worked his way up from rock bottom. Instead it’s something far more realistic, if cruel. It is about a man who tries to do right by everyone in his life, who sets aside his own wellness to do so, but who can’t catch a break, who doesn’t accomplish what he sets out to do, whose own life and the lives of those he was trying to help get worse and more dire no matter how much digging he does. The truth of humanity is that the hands some people are dealt are shit, and real life doesn’t allow you to trade them in.
It’s a poignant, stirring message and journey. But also… Jesus Christ, that’s bleak.
Cianfrance has a way of intimately acquainting you with his characters—a combination of uncomfortably tight shots, letting silence doing the talking—so that their pain and grief reaches an unflinching level of honesty. It’s a kind of misery that isn’t pandering, or treacly. In that way, it’s not unpleasant. There’s some beauty to be found in the frankness of it all. Or maybe we’re just trying to cheer ourselves up.
If nothing else, Cianfrance knows how to establish a mood. The series takes place mostly in a rural Connecticut suburb, seemingly entirely at dusk and only in places that adhere to a uniform gray palette. The general vibe of the whole thing is a cold drizzle.
Ruffalo is astounding, the most nuanced, unshowy double act we’ve seen in the grand “actors playing twins” oeuvre. Meeting him at equal measure is Rosie O’Donnell, delivering the best acting of her career as a no-nonsense, yet bleeding-heart social worker, and Kathryn Hahn, as sensational and heartrending as ever. But will anyone get it up to watch?
There actually was a great time to release something depressing.
In fact, Wally Lamb’s novel is a byproduct of that time, when, as The Hollywood Reporter notes, its “particular brand of populist doorstop angst… had a wave of Oprah-spawned vogue more than 20 years ago.” A Million Little Pieces, House of Sand and Fog, A Map of the Road, White Oleander, and Cry, the Beloved Country are among the dozens of misery manifestos that earned Winfrey’s seal of approval and mass acclaim.
Whoo-ee, did we love these upsetting tales. The reason we used to call things “trauma porn” is because we were titillated by all the sadness. The bleaker the better! Wreck me!!!
That grim pathos naturally extended to film and TV shows, many of which were adapted from these novels, others which simply carried their ethos. But it was a sort of awakening to the artistic value of unfiltered, unedited pain.
Like all cultural trends, it’s had a resurgence across the last decade. Especially as the television landscape exploded and cable and streaming services raced to signal their options as “prestige,” bringing the film world’s talent with them, it seemed as if the darker something was, the more elevated it was perceived to be.
Some shows interpreted their task as exposing the moral corruption of human nature. Others went the route of violence, and some seemed to confuse tonal darkness for “literally no lighting.” But a string of great, cult-favorite and critically acclaimed dramas examining the nature of pain and the inescapable loop of tragedy also emerged, shows like Rectify, The Leftovers, American Crime, and, the greatest of all-time, The Wire.
For very different reasons, and to drastically polar levels of execution, The Handmaid’s Tale and 13 Reasons Why seized elements of the genre and became pop-culture phenomenons. But, in these last two months and even with more free time than ever to catch up on great TV, you haven’t heard many rumblings of people saying, “I’m going to use this quarantine to catch up on The Handmaid’s Tale.”
More than ever, at least in recent history—and certainly since the proliferation of streaming services and content platforms have made literally any kind of show there is now and ever has been a viewing option—our entertainment options seem to be dictated by our mood, or, more, the mood we desire. And depressed isn’t it.
I Know This Much Is True isn’t alone facing this predicament. While thrillers and more genre-specific fare like Westworld and Killing Eve break from reality enough to still be considered escapist, some of the best new drama and limited series of the year have debuted with more awkward footing in this cultural climate.
The New York Times reported findings from the research company Magid, that the desire for fun, comfort viewing has meant less desire for “intelligent” or “original” programming. “So the timing may not have been ideal for a pair of lushly produced period dramas that made their debuts in recent weeks,” the Times said, citing FX on Hulu’s Mrs. America and HBO’s The Plot Against America. Presumably, I Know This Much Is True falls under the same umbrella.
The thing never to be discounted, however, is greatness. All three of those mentioned series are, in their own ways, fantastic television. Awards acclaim will come flooding in, piquing interest in them. Word of mouth from those who watched will, too. (That already seems to be the case, at least anecdotally, with Mrs. America.)
Ruffalo’s performance on I Know This Much Is True is transcendent. At some point, people are going to be exhausted by diverting fare and want to seek their teeth into a show like this. Even TV viewers have only so much appetite for fluff. That much I know is true.