There can be too much of a good thing, and Amazon’s new soliloquy series Solos unfortunately proves that.
Essentially a loosely connected anthology of short films (each about 30 minutes long), Solos boasts a truly stellar cast of thespians featuring Uzo Aduba, Nicole Beharie, Morgan Freeman, Anne Hathaway, Anthony Mackie, Helen Mirren, Dan Stevens, and Constance Wu. All but Freeman and Stevens—who appear together in the final episode—get an episode to themselves where they might speak directly to the camera, confessional style, or speak to a disembodied tech voice in their personal space. Some even play against themselves (like Hathaway and Mackie) in dual roles. If you have an affinity for any of the actors, then spending 30 uninterrupted minutes with them doing their acting thing should be a no-brainer of entertainment.
Except it isn’t.
Turns out, those really painful college senior performances, or small theater avant-garde pieces you attended to support your friends or family members back in the day—with their achingly earnest presentations meant to showcase their “talent”—aren’t just the playground of youthful indiscretion. Really talented actors can also get sucked into that mystical monologue magic too, and Solos wooed too many of them for what amounts to indulgent actor-y pieces that fall very flat comedically and emotionally.
Of the seven, only two acquit themselves well: Nicole Beharie’s “Nera” and Dan Stevens and Morgan Freeman’s finale, “Stuart.” In the former, the series finally breaks its own format six episodes into the run with a tight little thriller about a pregnant woman stuck alone inside a remote cabin during a raging snow storm. When her water breaks, an unexpected chain of events are triggered that tie into the futuristic themes of the overall series. As directed by Tiffany Johnson, “Nera” is a tight little horror/thriller. Beharie showcases just how compelling and determined she can be in a mostly solitary piece. The scenario asks for her to sell a dynamic range of reactions and emotions in a very contained piece, and she lands it. However, the writing fails her with a limp ending that underscores the overriding parallel sin of this endeavor: meandering scripts that never really pack an earned emotional punch.
In “Stuart,” Stevens and Freeman share the screen together, and it’s another break in format that helps the storytelling and presentation issues that plague the more singularly focused prior installments. As a closer, the episode sort of ties together characters and story fragments from the other narratives into Freeman’s Stuart. Otto (Stevens) is a tech genius who tracks down a now-frail Stuart to confront him, and uses a really interesting tech concept to have a coherent confrontation with him. It’s a very compelling idea… but then the script devolves into maudlin territory that undercuts what could have been a very thought-provoking and piercing rumination on biology technology and revenge. Instead the story, and the series, just peters out with a muted closing, one that could have been so much more if something with teeth had been revealed to tie it all together for a bigger impact.
The series was created by David Weil, with four of the seven shorts penned by him, too. The big problem with Solos is that there is a lot of great short-form storytelling out there to compete with these days, so you better bring your writing A-game. It’s not enough to collect the talent. The writing has to give them something to do that makes the concept worth everyone’s time. So, when these stories try to pack in too much in too little time, like “Tom” or “Leah,” or come across more like an unfinished sketch, as in “Peg” or “Nera,” the audience is left thinking, “Is that it? You got that celebrity to be in this, and that’s it?”
There’s an overall vibe about the whole series that we’ve been served up these little nuggets of perfection, when instead there’s a lot of preening, fart jokes (yes, and they’re recurring) and randomness instead of cohesion. In the end, the whole affair comes across rather calculated and far too self-aware, like everyone assumes they’re adding a real hum dinger to their acting reels, rather than organically achieving any real emotional resonance. All of the stories end up feeling pretty hollow, or worse, very cringey at times when an actor is allowed to follow their worst instincts without some tempering. Even stalwarts like Stevens and Freeman can’t escape involuntary winces when asked to perform a huge moment that made my brain scream, “Do not want!”
No one embarrasses themselves. And some of the actors even hit a few grace notes within their 30 minutes. But Solos left me imagining what it could have been, rather than savoring what it is.
Solos premieres Friday, May 21st on Amazon Prime
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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