'Mosaic': TV Review

Doesn't add up.
1/22/2018

After starting out as an app, Steven Soderbergh's murder-mystery experiment comes to HBO as a limited series starring Sharon Stone and Garrett Hedlund.

A good rule of thumb is that it's always unwise to pass on whatever Steven Soderbergh is up to — which in itself takes some doing to figure out, because he seems relentlessly creative on the one hand and bored with whatever everyone else is doing on the other. He famously quit making films and focused entirely on TV, shooting every episode of The Knick for Cinemax and executive producing a series for Starz based off his film The Girlfriend Experience, then pivoting to make an app-based experience/story (don't call it a game) that he also agreed to cut into a limited series for HBO — and then going back to make films, one shot entirely on an iPhone.

So, yeah, for someone that creative who hits more than he misses, opting out or ignoring is not a great idea. Which brings us to Mosaic, the endgame (whoops, that word) of the app-focused murder mystery that has now been cut into a six-part HBO series.

It's an interesting concept, and your reaction will depend on how you like your stories told. As an app, Mosaic asked users to follow one narrative path (you could go back, but not skip ahead) and then, along the way, stop the story for little interactive detours before returning to the path — then "ending" in what was essentially the beginning of another path that would tell a different side of the story (often with the same scenes shot from different vantage points, complete with  "new" characters whom you hadn't met yet taking center stage).

It was kind of exhausting, even if you couldn't finish.

As a phone or tablet app (you could also watch it on Apple TV), there were roughly seven hours of filmed and interactive bits to devour.

That's a lot.

It's especially a lot if you were either easily distracted, bored or frustrated that a linear storyline wasn't presenting itself to you (in which case, why did you download and play the app in the first place?). It was repetitive and stifling in some places, clever and fun in others. 

The limited series version of Mosaic tells the story straight. A successful but lonely children's book author, Olivia (Sharon Stone), collects her latest boy-toy, Joel (Garrett Hedlund), but is then seduced by con-man Eric (Frederick Weller), who was hired by her neighbor, Michael (James Ransone), who covets her property. Of course, Eric truly falls in love with Olivia and then backs out of the con, ill-advisedly telling her of this elaborate hoax (she flips out, sending Eric remorsefully away) mere minutes before Olivia is murdered, setting up this entire Clue-like story.

One of the issues that arises if you didn't play the app at all is that Mosaic is an interesting mystery that, as a series, unfolds a little more awkwardly than expected, giving viewers the feeling that it was something else previously and was repurposed. There are some odd cuts — especially odd given the normal precision of Soderbergh's storytelling — but then again, maybe the app and its ambitious structure necessitated that jumpy, staccato style. There's an excessive amount of close-ups (even for television), but again, that was probably done to play better on a phone. And, most damningly, the pace is a little off, though there's no real clear indicator of why.

The writing, from Ed Solomon (Now You See Me, Charlie's Angels, Men in Black), is serviceable though not subtle (nor does a good mystery need to be). Soderbergh's direction is naturally top-notch and he gets universally excellent performances out of everyone, save for the moments that are just the tiniest bit overwrought or rushed, again probably because that served the app more effectively.

And ultimately that's the problem with HBO's post-app version of Soderbergh's experiment — every instance where something feels off will make the viewer wonder if the app was better than the linear HBO story, or if the removal of the interactive demands somehow smudged or skewed what was recut for TV.

On the other hand, it's not like those who tried the app first got all the joy. Unfortunately, for those who went that route and didn't like it or couldn't for some reason see it through (guilty as charged here), there's no going back. Once you press play on the app, then Mosaic never quite feels like a coherent TV experience afterward. You end up rewatching scenes, creating that "rerun" experience of paying less attention the second time around. Plus, when the HBO version feels more liberating and sense-making by cutting out scenes or detours from the app, the resulting fluidity creates a bit of remorse in the app user for having spent all that time detouring into interactive zones or switching POV from one character experience to the next.

Experiencing Mosaic both ways ends up diminishing both experiences.

Maybe there's a world where someone played the app to the end and then will enjoy the six recut HBO episodes as well, but the likelier scenario is that neither side will be ultimately fulfilled by the challenge.

That said, the sum of many of the parts in Mosaic — app and limited series — was the result of a restless creative person doing something different, and it's hard not to opt into both offerings to see how Soderbergh did and, on some level, to be happy he at least tried. Not everybody would do such a thing. As it turns out, probably for a reason.

Cast: Sharon Stone, Frederick Weller, Garrett Hedlund, Jennifer Ferrin, Devin Ratray, James Ransone, Paul Reubens, Allison Tolman, Maya Kazan, Michael Cerveris, Beau Bridges, Jeremy Bobb
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Ed Solomon
Premieres: Monday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)