Love & Death Review | Killin’ It

by Andrew Parker

Based on a real life case of love, infidelity, fractured families, and murder, series creator David E. Kelley’s latest, Love & Death, is a straightforward, but impeccably crafted bit of television melodrama. It’s not a limited series that redefines the genre in any way, and for legendary television veteran Kelley (Picket Fences, The Undoing, Big Little Lies, Ally McBeal, The Practice, and so on, and so on) it’s not even that much a change of pace. It isn’t even the first time this particular story has been adapted into a series in the past year. Nor does it really have to redefine anything to be good. Kelley understands better than anyone that sometimes all a show needs is a great hook, an outstanding cast, and a clear sense of overall direction. Love & Death has all of those things, and as such, it’s an easy show to get caught up in.

Love & Death kicks off in 1978 in the small town of Wylie, Texas, where Candy Montgomery (Elizabeth Olsen), a bored and emotionally neglected housewife, starts to develop a crush on a man that isn’t her husband. Allan Gore (Jesse Plemons) isn’t unhappily married, but his relationship to his wife, Betty (Lily Rabe), is a tempestuous one. Suffering from severe postpartum depression (and possibly something worse), Betty is prone to angry mood swings and occasional bursts of cruelty. Candy’s relationship to her low key, unimpressive husband Pat (Patrick Fugit) isn’t nearly as complicated, but she sees Allan as someone who can give her the attention she desires. Candy and Allan begin seeing each other on the sly for the better part of two years, but in 1980 after having another baby, Betty’s temper leads to the female acquaintances having a violent argument. In the scuffle, Candy brutally kills Betty with an axe, leading to a high profile murder trial that rocks both families and divides the community. Did Candy kill Betty out of jealousy or was it simply an act of self defence that got out of control?

Kelley certainly knows his way around crimes of the heart, and Love & Death fits nicely into his catalogue of droll and darkly comedic looks into the darkest recesses of human nature. Based in part of a book called Evidence of Love and a series of Texas Monthly articles on the case that inspired it, Love & Death takes a few episodes to set the scenes and characters into motion before diving head long into the gristly details and deepening moral quicksand. It’s clearly on the side of the sometimes all too calculating Candy, but not without sympathy for the clearly suffering Betty. The slow-burn approach employed by Kelley and series director Lesli Linka Glatter (another television veteran with a stacked list of credits to their name) allows the series creator to weave another of his trademarked stories about a shocking incident that ripples throughout entire communities and families. The first few episodes of Love & Death are locked in and intimate. By the time the show catches up to the inciting death, everything has begun branching out in an engaging and dramatically satisfying fashion.

Glatter also brings a unique sense of style that helps to offset some of Kelley’s worse impulses. The courtroom stuff in the second half of the season is expectedly standard legal drama fodder, and Kelley seemingly can’t resist anachronisms and fat jokes (which show up later than usual this time, so I guess that’s a plus), but by this point viewers probably know what they’re in for when they see his name in the opening titles of a show. Glatter spruces things up by having a keen eye for small town life in the era, not shying away from ugly carpeting, huge cars, and obscene amounts of faux wood panelling, but also not turning it into a caricature of late 70s/early 80s kitsch. There’s a great visual motif where the placement of the Montgomery residence on a hill gives off a clever, natural dutch angle, which plays nicely with a lot of Glatter’s other subtle Hitchcockian nods throughout the series. The style of the show and its impeccable design only serves to elevate Kelley’s material further.

Thematically, Love & Death focuses most of its attention on loneliness, mental illness, deeply rooted Christian faith, and what exactly constitutes self-defence, and it’s all handled with a good amount of tact, grace, and shades of grey. While the viewer knows from the start of Love & Death where things might be headed (especially if they are familiar with the case, either anecdotally or from the 1990 Emmy winning television movie, A Killing in a Small Town, starring Barbara Hershey or last year’s limited series, Candy, starring Jessica Biel as Montgomery), nothing plays out in cliched fashion. There’s a lot of philosophical thought and shared history that’s built up, making each new complication carry plenty of emotional and narrative weight. Love & Death has some shocking moments, but they aren’t played for exploitation. They’re played for tragedy.

Olsen’s powerhouse leading performance conveys the sadness and stress of Candy’s situation note perfectly. For the first part of the series, Olsen plays Candy not as a cunning adulterer keen to ruin someone else’s marriage, but rather as a woman experiencing a kind of secret happiness that restores balance to her life for a brief moment. When Candy’s relationship with Allan starts falling apart, Olsen’s performance shifts towards that of a women trying to keep things together after those familiar feelings of being unappreciated at home start resurfacing. Even after Candy kills Betty, Olsen’s performance doesn’t waver much until it has to built to a moment of unbridled emotional release. It’s exceptionally delicate, remarkably reasoned work, and her chemistry with both Plemons (who, like Olsen, is great as always) and Fugit (who gets his best role in ages here) is richly detailed. Olsen’s scenes with Rabe are also wonderful, starting out as a portrait of everyday people who are never on the same philosophical or religious page, and building to crackling, intense moments of genuine anger and fright.

Around the halfway point, when it comes time for Candy to answer for what she’s done, that’s the time when Kelley opens the floor up to the tangentially related characters that have been hanging out around the periphery to that point, and the stacked supporting cast comes ready to play. Tom Pelphrey is a particularly strong standout as the family friend who becomes Candy’s unlikely choice of legal counsel. Accomplished character actors Brad Leland and Bruce McGill are welcome sights as a suspicious cop and obviously biased judge, respectively. Brian d’Arcy James has a small, but pivotal role as a psychiatric expert. Keir Gilchirst has an unusually meaty role as the new pastor in town; an awkward man with wildly new ideas who endears himself to almost nobody, but becomes an unspoken ally to Candy. And although she’s the most under-utilized cast member in Love & Death, Krysten Ritter adds a healthy amount of local flavour as Candy’s best friend and biggest moral supporter.

But as great as Love & Death is in the moment in terms of performance and storytelling, it’s tough to gauge how long Kelley’s latest will linger in the memory. Olsen gives a performance for the ages here, but on the whole Love & Death is not much more than one of those shows that’s “good for what it is.” Not every bit of prestige television has to be some sort of reinvention of the genre, and Love & Death is one of those efforts that sticks closely to what everyone involved with is best at. It’s not overachieving or low aiming, but instead just solidly good. That might be a let down for some expecting a home run hit into the parking lot from the talent involved here, but not for anyone expecting something, you know, good.

The first three episodes of Love & Death premiere on Thursday, April 27th starting at 9:00pm on Crave in Canada.

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