Early on in Little Birds’ first episode, a poorly conceived adaptation of short stories by renowned author Anaïs Nin, a well-to-do member of high society giddily reacts to seeing a pineapple prominently displayed at their dinner spread. The man unironically exclaims that there’s nothing more exotic than the sight of a pineapple to his family. It’s obvious that this moment is meant as a joke designed to underline where these characters are heading throughout the course of creator Sophia Al-Maria’s series, but it’s a painfully apt metaphor for Little Birds as a whole. Despite being based on a posthumously published set of short stories from one of the world’s foremost eroticists, Little Birds is as sexy as a pile of old tires. There’s plenty of visual panache on display, but no visible or emotional sparks.
The primary protagonist of Little Birds’ overlapping stories of love, lust, and heartbreak set in Tangiers circa 1955 is New York City socialite and heiress Lucy Savage, played by Juno Temple. Lucy has just arrived in the city via transatlantic steamer, and she’s there to wed a fiance she hasn’t even met yet. Her betrothed, Hugo Smythe (Hugh Skinner) seems aloof and uninterested in Lucy’s irrepressible and impatient sexual appetite because he’s gay and living a closeted life. Their marriage is part of a one-sided business arrangement between Hugo and Lucy’s weapons manufacturing father (David Costabile, who gets to deliver the pineapple exclamation mentioned above). Without much interest from her husband, Lucy is drawn into a world of unrepressed bohemians and hedonists, including an alluring dominatrix (Yumna Marwan) with romantic and personal troubles of her own.
Little Birds is a show that never settles upon a single tone for more than a few minutes at a time, taking its cues from some of the worst serialized soap operas to come out of the UK (where the series premiered last summer). Al-Maria and frequent series director Stacie Passon (Concussion, the 2013 drama, not the Will Smith one) flail wildly between broad farce, the softest of soft-core erotica, war drama, spy thriller, romantic melodrama, surrealism, and Moulin Rouge styled freak-outs, often within the same scenes, but none of them stick around long enough to serve as a baseline. Some of the humour works well, but a lot feels out of place. At times there’s a great degree of campiness – best exemplified by Rossy de Palma’s turn as an eccentric “countess” – but it’s all brought crashing down to Earth whenever things start to get serious. The sex among shifting partners and degrees of permisiveness is bland and lifeless, but it also seems like the only reason for this story to be happening in the first place.
The result is a show that’s throwing everything at the pastel coloured walls and costumes on a visual level – including multi-camera setups that would make anyone’s head spin from overkill – but saving nothing for these characters and the numerous subplots they become embroiled in. Temple – a fine performer who gets cast in these types of roles far too often – is completely adrift. Lucy is too naive and horny to be a believable human being worth following. She’s neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Lucy is a character that just goes through whatever paces the script sets for her, which is a shame because Little Birds is a show that purports to be a woman’s journey of sexual self-discovery. That journey is a choppy, unfocused mess. It doesn’t matter what Lucy ultimately does with her life because Little Birds gives the viewer precious little reason to care beyond promising her and the audience only the most basic and flacid of sexual and moral gratification. It’s the kind of role so poorly written and conceived that no actor could truly make it work. Characters in erotica are purposefully designed to be vague so viewers can impart their own fantasies onto them, but that tactic only works on the page. On screen, it’s painfully boring.
The writing of the supporting characters is equally vexing, and in their overlapping tales it becomes clear that Little Birds has been cobbled together from numerous different stories instead of from a well throughout and unifying vision. What’s worse is the series’ desire to keep piling on new characters as it goes along, meaning that more time is spent introducing people and leaving little time left over for any of them to actually do anything. Much of Little Birds is an outright slog, watching characters having predictable conversations without ever having them do anything. For a show that should be packed to bursting with sex and intrigue – owing to a lot of militaristic themes going on in the background for no great reason other than reflecting the chosen time period and location – Little Birds is unbearably dull.
Outside of the accomplished, stunning, and fussy visuals, there is one major bright spot in Little Birds, and that’s Marwan. Although she’s also saddled with a story that has too many false starts and swerves, at least she has the best one to work with. Marwan’s dominatrix lights up the screen whenever Al-Maria allows her to take centre stage. A perfect blend of hardened confidence and obvious vulnerability, Marwan is so captivating to watch that one is almost tempted to skip over anything not directly involving her. It doesn’t entirely work as a stand alone story, but she’s more exciting and intriguing than anything else on display.
Little Birds would appeal precisely to the type of person who finds pineapple exotic. Little Birds wants to be sexy, but also classically and safely British enough for masses to watch it. What’s the point of adapting one of the sexiest writers to ever live and then never giving viewers a decent reason to care about what happens between her characters? Why employ so many stylistic tricks in service of something so threadbare and low stakes? If there were more surface level comforts to be found in Little Birds, maybe it would be a bit more palatable. As it stands, it’s a slow paced, underseasoned series that asks a lot of the viewers’ patience without giving them much in return.
Little Birds premieres on Starz and Crave in Canada on Sunday, February 14, 2021 at 9:00pm EST.