'Riviera': TV Review

Eye candy that's not worth the calories.
9/14/2017

Lovely to look at but completely ridiculous, the Julia Stiles-starrer has a more interesting real-life backstory than anything in this skippable series.

There's nothing terribly wrong with a TV series that looks incredible but maybe doesn't end up exactly where hoped as far as story goes — look no further than The Night Manager, with its glossy allure and eye-popping, beautiful locations that played like a visual travelogue.

Of course, The Night Manager had Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston. That helps a lot.

Into this vein of glitz-soaked visuals comes Riviera, an acquisition from Sundance Now, the streaming arm of SundanceTV, from the U.K.'s Sky Vision, starring Julia Stiles as a very recent second wife to a billionaire (Anthony LaPaglia) who owns property and runs a business in Monaco, the fabulous-looking background to Riviera and most of the reason to watch — if you watch at all.

While you may think that only amazingly great things happen in the south of France, that wouldn't be very dramatic, so trouble comes quickly to the paradise the Stiles finds herself in.

Having seen three episodes of Riviera, lured in by the fact it was created by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, The Borgias), who co-wrote the first two episodes with Booker Prize-winning author John Banville (The Sea), something went awfully wrong in the translation from idea to execution.

And, according to an interview Jordan gave to U.K. newspaper The Guardian, that something isn't too difficult to suss out: The finished product was worked over pretty thoroughly after he and Banville left the project after those first two episodes. For his part, Jordan has thoroughly distanced himself from Riviera (which saw huge ratings in Europe but was savaged in many reviews).

Jordan told The Guardian that he had no idea who rewrote the episodes: "They were changed, to my huge surprise and considerable upset. There were various sexual scenes introduced into the story and a lot of very expository dialogue. I objected in the strongest terms possible."

Well, that makes more sense, then.

Riviera has the feel of a slick international production, with various actors from various countries playing various roles that only sometimes appear to be in the same series.

Not only is the expository writing that Jordan alluded to heavy-handed, the less on-the-nose parts of the dialogue never seem to connect to any emotional aspect when two characters are talking. Some scenes make sense and some look like they were either chopped up in editing or written (and then translated by someone else) on the spot. There is a stiffness to almost every interaction between characters and you're left, in many moments, hoping that they otherwise had a wonderful vacation in Monaco.

Stiles plays an art buyer named Georgina who previously worked for a billionaire named Constantine Clios (LaPaglia) and then married him, leaving his ex-wife Irina (Lena Olin) to plot her revenge (which seems easy to do in Riviera because she's not only around a lot but pops up conveniently when necessary).

Plenty of good actors are wasted throughout the 10-part series. Adrian Lester (London Spy, Hustle), Iwan Rheon (Game of Thrones), LaPaglia and other fine characters actors from around the globe do their best to service the script but can't overcome that obstacle. Credit Igal Naor (The Honorable Woman) for managing this best — he's an actor that steals countless scenes and should get more chances on American television in a hurry.

At least Olin seems to be having a fine time as she works her machinations in the background (but to tie this part up in a bow, when she and Naor's character have sex — to wipe out a $600,000 debt — nothing can save the nonsense of that for either of them).

The trouble with Riviera begins after you stop fantasizing about wanting to visit there and be on a yacht while doing it. The visuals — helicopter shots galore —  can't offset that this series feels like an episode of some lost soap opera that was patched together in several different languages. Jordan's story of having his work, uh, worked over, certainly hints at too many cooks in the kitchen, and that's evident in all the weird tone shifts throughout.

For example, Rheon plays the older Clios son, and the actor probably relished a chance to hit the breaks on his Game of Thrones evilness, but here he's given nothing to do but walk around mansions like a ghost, being meek, while Dimitri Leonidas as younger brother Christos gets to be completely awful and hateful constantly. Their sister Adriana (Roxane Duran) is in a completely different series entirely — she opens Riviera by carving what appears to be "Da da" into her arm, dripping blood all over the gorgeous stone garden of the mansion and then petulantly running away, only to turn up in the odd lace dress, looking haunted or throwing herself on the ground out amongst the grapevines, like she was in a British costume drama about 18th century female troubles.

The idea for Riviera apparently came from former U2 manager Paul McGuinness, who is an executive producer on the series. Jordan and Banville then set about making a two-hour pilot, which Jordan told The Guardian was much darker: "It's [now] being described as Dynasty sur mer. ... It was quite distressing for John and for myself, the way it proceeded."

Except the way that it proceeded turned into a hit in Europe, so don't expect any apologies from McGuinness. American viewers, however, have lot of other, better options to seek out.

Cast: Julia Stiles, Lena Olin, Andrian Lester, Iwan Rheon, Dimitri Leonidas, Roxane Duran, Anthony LaPaglia
Premieres: Thursday (Sundance Now)

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