‘Love and Death’ Review: Elizabeth Olsen’s Rote True Crime Drama Is D.O.A.

The phrase “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all” is rarely all that useful when discussing popular entertainment. TV thrives on genre stories, telling seemingly infinite variations of doctor, detective, and demonic procedurals, all without losing the audience’s hard-earned attention. Plus, dismissing any story as nothing more than a carbon copy of what you’ve already seen typically overlooks the craft of good television and/or its evolution. Sure, you could argue if you’ve already seen “Columbo” or “Monk,” then you “get” what “Poker Face” is going to be — but then you’d be dismissing Natasha Lyonne’s smoky star power, Rian Johnson’s deft direction, and the artistic attributes within a smart “howcatchem.” (Not to mention, you’d be missing out on so many other savvy mystery series.)

But when it comes to “Love and Death,” the (not HBO) Max original series from writer/producer David E. Kelley, previously released options prove as plentiful as they are hard to ignore. Most recently, there’s “Candy,” the 2022 Hulu original series from Nick Antosca and Robin Veith about Candy Montgomery, a suburban housewife who, in 1980, killed her friend Betty Gore with an axe. “Love and Death” tells the same true crime tale across seven episodes (“Candy” did it in five), but despite drawing from the exact same well, what really drowns the new edition are its similarities to Kelley’s past projects. If you were lured into “Big Little Lies” Season 2 by Meryl Streep or had the misfortune of enduring “The Undoing,” then you know what to expect with “Love and Death” — a provocative synopsis turned into another paint-by-numbers, faux-prestige courtroom drama, where the only shocking twist is how little effort is given to distinguishing this series from all that have come before.

That being said, not everyone involved is guilty of negligence. Lesli Linka Glatter directs five of the seven episodes with patience and inquisitiveness only her central star can match. “Love and Death” implements the dreaded in media res opening — flashing forward to glimpse the grisly murder scene — but keeps the hints brief enough to function as more of an assurance than a tease, since the story takes its time getting to the titular death. Glatter enjoys setting the scene. Her camera roams about town, inviting viewers into the warm, family-friendly, and spiritually guided streets of Wylie, TX. Candy (Elizabeth Olsen) sings in the church choir. She and her husband, Pat (Patrick Fugit), are on the parish council. She plays on the Methodists’ volleyball team, and he cheers her on from the stands. Her best friend, Jackie (Elizabeth Marvel), is their preacher.

A random collision on the court leads her to notice Allan Gore (Jesse Plemons) — and by “notice,” I mean she takes a liking to the married father of two. While an excellent homemaker and well-mannered community member, Candy isn’t one to mince words. She has a startling understanding of her wants, as well as what’s driving them, and she’s quick to tell her “backdoor friends” exactly what she’s thinking. “What do you mean ‘he smelled like sex,’?” Candy’s other confidante, Sherry (Krysten Ritter), asks when told of the sudden attraction. Candy, like any good churchgoer, knows having an affair isn’t a good idea. She’s very aware it could hurt her husband and Allan’s wife, Betty (Lily Rabe), not to mention put her good standing in the town at risk. It’s not that she doesn’t care about those things, it’s that she needs this. “I wasn’t looking for what’s best. I was looking for something more transcendent,” she says.

Boy, does she find it, even if the series certainly does not. As Candy embarks on her fateful affair, Kelley’s interest in what compels his main character to take big risks plummets. The show seems content with the “bored housewife” explanation, acknowledging her suppressed identity but never following through enough to point the finger at her faith, upbringing, or even the tight-knit community she covets. The best you could say for “Love and Death’s” thematic contributions to true crime (or TV in general) is its surprising empathy for Candy. It doesn’t exactly let her off the hook, but rather than peer into her case’s many unknowns, it fully buys into her story.

“Love & Death”

Courtesy of Jake Giles Netter / Max

Sticking to a central point-of-view helps keep things from getting too tawdry — guessing at darker motivations or dwelling on scandalous, speculative possibilities — but it also robs “Love and Death” of narrative drive. The affair, crime, and cover-up are dwarfed by the trial, as tends to happen in too many of Kelley’s series, but this seems especially egregious since we know what happens. The case isn’t exactly obscure (it’s easy to Google what really happened), and it’s also been chronicled in another original series that’s barely a year old.

Worse yet, “Love and Death” never questions Candy’s framing of events, so there’s nothing to discover on the witness stand. We just sit and watch attorneys reframe and recycle what we’ve already seen go down, waiting for a verdict that’s simply not dramatic enough to justify the hours of build-up. As Candy’s in-over-his-head-but-arrogant-about-it attorney, “Ozark’s” Tom Pelphrey makes both a splendid buffoon and emblematic of the series’ screwy construction. The most entertainment you’ll get in the final three hours stems from his brash Texas accent and attack-dog persona, often cursing out the “fat fuck” judge or talking sweet nonsense to the TV cameras, but that’s… also bad? Shouldn’t Candy factor in to her own story’s final third, beyond Olsen’s refreshingly honest portrayal of a woman who’s never really had to lie and is thus naturally quite bad at it? Yes, yes she should, but she really doesn’t.

With “The Undoing” and “Big Little Lies” (both made for HBO) through his broadcast days behind “Boston Public,” “The Practice,” and “L.A. Law,” the former attorney (and 11-time Emmy winner) Kelley has twice carved out his own TV niche. His network-friendly fare thrived on procedural format, before his premium offerings tended to circle the same murder-mystery terrain. With “Love and Death,” it’s clearer than ever that ground is wearing thin, and he either needs to embrace the courtroom drama genre with renewed gusto, or try something totally different. No matter where you saw it, you’ve seen this one before.

Grade: D+

“Love & Death” premieres Thursday, April 27 on Max with three episodes. One new episode will be released weekly through the finale on May 25.

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