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One of the traits I most admire in a television series is ambition. It’s a key ingredient to all great dramas. But there are countless shows that either have too much of it, bogging down the execution, or simply can’t deliver on what little they do have.
USA’s latest drama, Falling Water, has too much ambition in its current iteration, which is more frustrating than admirable. There’s a difference between wanting to like a series and actually doing so, and one of the key factors in that equation is most definitely frustration.
Air date: Oct 13, 2016
Dreams — particularly the interconnectedness and manipulation of them — are at the center of Falling Water, a stylized puzzle that puts so much effort into that style that there’s no possible way to work toward its solution, which is a particularly unwelcome revelation after you’ve invested three hours in it. Yes, USA provided a fourth episode, but trying to suss out all these convoluted dreams put me in a fugue state that wanted no part of more complicated imagery.
So, yeah, frustrating.
But let’s go back to that part about wanting to like Falling Water — which I did, and partly still do, despite the fact that it somehow thinks it’s on HBO and I’ll keep watching it without benefit of much forward story momentum simply because I’ve already paid my monthly subscription.
A show on USA – even with its new Mr. Robot rep — can not afford to take its time setting the hook. There are 499 other scripted series out there looking for my time, and three hours of barely moving dream sequences had me looking at my watch.
Well, technically the pilot moved along at a crisper pace than the two episodes that follow, but it wasn’t exactly pulse-pounding. Interesting? You bet. I’m all in on trippy dreams and weird imagery wrapping its gauzy arms around a big mystery. And Falling Water has all of that — specifically, three unrelated people having weird dreams plus one man who wants to figure out the deeper meaning of all dreams and a very mysterious, slightly worrisome cult that wears bright green shoes and blows things up. I want to see what’s up with all of that nuttiness. But I also want to see it at least partly make sense after three hours of invested time.
Have I mentioned that there’s lots of unexplained water? I’m sure that will be important at some point. Oh, and there’s other weirdness afoot. The problem is, in Falling Water, that weirdness is excessively convoluted. There’s no compelling reason to continue watching once the annoyance of seeing unanswered questions pile up on top of each other reaches its most intense pitch. It’s like nobody here saw Lost.
Part of what makes me want to like Falling Water more than I do after nearly 180 invested minutes is that it was created by the late Henry Bromell (Homeland, Homicide: Life on the Street) and Blake Masters (Brotherhood) with an assist from Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead), which is enough creativity to keep me coming back to see it pay off.
But dreams are tricky business when they are injected into already coherent dramas, and even trickier when you base the entire show around them. That’s because dreams are by their nature unreliable, and if you weave three (or more) weird dreams together that hint at a greater conspiracy — plus muddle it all up by having the actors in those dreams be part of three separate but connected non-dream stories — you need to inject it all with some sense or a few flares of logic that point the way forward.
Otherwise, well, you’re playing tennis with no net or lines and that gets pointless and annoying in a real hurry.
In Falling Water, we’re introduced to Tess (Lizzie Brochere of American Horror Story: Asylum), the most intuitive and in-demand trend spotter any New York firm can hire, who also happens to spot her missing child in dreams, even though no record of her giving birth exists in real life. There’s also Burton (Jupiter Ascending‘s David Ajala), head of in-house security at a gigantic investment bank. He puts out fires for a living, but he’s been having crazy dreams about a girlfriend who may or may not be real and who always pulls him back to the same New York restaurant. And the third link is Taka (Wolverine‘s Will Yun Lee) as an NYPD detective whose artist mother is in a catatonic state (until he sees her in dreams).
The person who believes all of these people should be connected — and that dreams are more powerful than anyone can fathom — is tech pioneer Bill Borg (Zak Orth of Casual), who funds dream research and, naturally, wants to tap into the connectivity aspect so central to Falling Water.
All four of these characters — and the actors who play them — are compelling, but their scenes tend to go nowhere except into more confusing dream vs. reality scenarios. Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of this problem than when all of the characters we meet, including many who we’re not following in their dream states, end up at the same mysterious restaurant that Burton and his possibly real, possibly fake girlfriend always end up at. That repeating scene is like The Shining meets Twin Peaks and makes about as much sense as that sounds.
This is perhaps the most frustrating thing about Falling Water: The elements for a very good show are all in place but the show keeps getting in its own way. It so desperately wants to create this elaborate mythology that it forgets to answer many (any?) of the myriad questions posed along the way. In 2016, that’s asking a lot for an audience that has so many other options with so little time.
I might give Falling Water another chance to start making sense and delivering on its ambition, but if the creators think everybody will be that generous, well, they’re dreaming.
Cast: David Ajala, Lizzie Brochere, Will Yun Lee, Zak Orth
Created by: Henry Bromell, Blake Masters
Executive producers: Gale Anne Hurd, Blake Masters, Henry Bromell
Premieres: Thursday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (USA)
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