Timing is everything.
If you ask any accomplished person what lead to their success and they’ll tell you it’s skill, perseverance, and being at the right place at the right time. TV shows often benefit from this phenomenon. The Handmaid’s Tale , a dystopian story if there ever was one, certainly reaped the rewards of premiering shortly after Trump took office.
Right now networks and streaming platforms must be feeling the push/pull of wanting to provide new content for viewers stuck at home while balancing what kind of content viewers might actually want to see. Unfortunately for HBO, the new six-part miniseries I Know This Much is True lands at utterly the wrong time. Based on the 1998 novel by Wally Lamb, who serves as an executive producer on the series, I Know This Much Is True follows twin brothers Dominick (Mark Ruffalo) and Thomas (also Mark Ruffalo) from their time as young children growing up in Three Rivers, Connecticut, into their late thirties. Each episode weaves in and out of present (the 1990s for the series) and past showing moments from grade school, college, marriage and various tragedies. Dominick is a house painter while his brother Thomas is a paranoid schizophrenic living in a group home and working a coffee cart, until one day he decides to cut off his hand at the public library. (This graphic scene occurs at the start of the series, so I’m not spoiling anything).
Born six minutes apart but in different years, Dominick is, in every sense of the phrase, his brother’s keeper. “My brother has been an anchor around my entire life,” Dominick says. “I used to think that one day that I’d actually get away from him.” Full of pent-up rage, Dominick struggles to keep Thomas’ fragile psyche from completely falling apart and is often helpless against an institutional system that, even with good people, is damaging to his brother. Weighed down by years of regret and remorse, Dominick feels trapped. All he wants to do is leave Three Rivers but he cannot. Every time he tries to move on with his life and escape his brother’s clutches, something prevents him. He fiercely loves his brother but he also resents the responsibility being Thomas’ brother entails.
Ruffalo gives a transformative performance. Apparently a six-week break was taken between filming his Dominick scenes and his Thomas scenes. Ruffalo, who lost weight to play Dominick, took that time to gain weight resulting in a Thomas that is physically very distinct. As Thomas, Ruffalo carries himself differently with a discrete cadence and gait. While watching I had to remind myself often that Ruffalo was, in fact, playing both characters. Technology has advanced so much from say Ringer (never forget Sarah Michelle Gellar’s boat scene) that watching two Ruffalos (for the price of one!) act together is utterly seamless. This kind of tour-de-force performance is a bit of an Emmy grab but, in this case, an Emmy would be well deserved.
The series is filled with terrific performances. Melissa Leo as the boys’ sad, long-suffering mother. Archie Panjabi as the kind, thoughtful therapist. Kathryn Hahn as Dominick’s gentle wife Dessa. Rob Huebel as Dominick’s best friend Leo. Rosie O’Donnell as the social worker assigned to Thomas’ case. Juliette Lewis doing her best Juliette Lewis as the woman Dominick hires to translate his grandfather’s manuscript from Italian to English. They are all terrific. O’Donnell, in particular, turns in a moving performance. “You spent your whole life trying to save him,” she tearfully tells Dominick. But even sad shows need moments of levity and there are none here. Even from Huebel who is more known for comedy. If ever there was a miniseries that needed just a modicum of comic relief I Know This Much Is True is it.
Press notes request that we don’t spoil anything, but what I can tell you that the six hours are plagued with unrelenting despair. There is death, rape, self-harm, and heartbreak beyond measure. Dominick suffers more than any one man should. He thinks he is cursed and I’m inclined to believe him. The result is an incredibly well-acted series that is a completely slog to watch. The world is so stressful and sad right now. Do we need to watch a show that is even more stressful and more sad? Even if everything was sunshine and roses, would we want to watch something this consistently depressing?
There’s a mystery throughout the series as to who is Dominick and Thomas’ father. They are raised by their step-father Ray (John Procaccino)—a harsh, unforgiving man prone to verbal and physical outbursts who thinks Thomas’ mental illness is a result of his mother indulging him. The father mystery is not enough of a hook to keep you watching, though, nor is the eventual reveal ultimately satisfying. The ending of the show seems like everyone just got tired of all the grief and desolation than any true resolution. The whole series begs the question: what actually is the point of all this despair?
Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, I Know This Much Is True is grey, bleak and muted. Nothing is filmed in vibrant colors or bright light. The tone matches the content of the series but that doesn’t make it any less of a grind to watch. It is persistent in its misery. Sadness after sadness after sadness is too much. I know this much is true: despite its great performances, I cannot recommend it.
I Know This Much Is True premieres Sunday, May 10th on HBO.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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