Netflix’s Pieces of Her Is a Middling Thriller with a Very Good Star

TV Reviews Pieces of Her
Netflix’s Pieces of Her Is a Middling Thriller with a Very Good Star

The great thing about casting Toni Collette in your show is that no matter what else, Toni Collette is going to be very good. That’s true in the new eight-episode Netflix thriller Pieces of Her, adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name by Karin Slaughter, and Collette’s predictable excellence is the good news. The bad news is that most of the other elements are merely fine, such that there’s no great takeaway for viewers beyond “wow, Toni Collette!” and even that, repeated ad nauseam, becomes a kind of quiet damnation of everything else.

The story begins with a mother and daughter eating lunch together one afternoon, and most of the conversation in the restaurant involves Laura Oliver (Collette) advising her aimless almost-30 daughter Andy (Bella Heathcoate) to see a therapist and/or get a job. They’re interrupted by a another mother/daughter pair, who are promptly murdered by a jilted ex-boyfriend, at which point Laura pulls off some extremely badass maneuvers to kill him, which confuses Andy because Laura is supposed to be just a regular mom and not Jason Bourne. It turns out that Laura has a past that goes a lot deeper than anyone knows, and the problem is that someone had his or her camera running when the dormant skills came out to play, and now she’s going viral. Laura very much does not want to go viral.

So begins a mystery predicated on ghosts from the past refusing to stay in the past, and refusing to leave the actual ordinary citizens and husbands and daughters out of the game. Andy is forced to flee, Laura scrambles to evade what feels like a long-delayed destiny, and the plot spills out all across America in a disjointed road trip.

As stories go, it’s passable, and adjectives like passable apply to quite a lot here. Heathcoate, in her role as Andy, has to hold as much narrative weight as Collette, and she’s solid. (My one trifling complaint: A certain line in the second episode threw me, and made me think for an instant that she wasn’t American. When I looked it up and found out she was Australian, I couldn’t un-hear the Aussie trace.) Omari Hardwick as a stressed-out ex-husband, and classic “that guy!” Gil Birmingham as family friends are just fine; David Wenham in the role of mega-villain Jasper Queller is likewise steady.

Yet all of it put together, for whatever reason, ends up feeling hollow, two-dimensional, and listless. It’s the kind of show in which it’s hard to pinpoint any specific error, but is, by episode three, basically a slog. And as these things typically go, Collette alone isn’t enough to lift things above mediocrity; ultimately, she has to go down with the ship.
If all of this sounds vague, perhaps it’s because rather than any singular failure, Pieces of Her is too avowedly paint-by-numbers, in the way of some formulaic novels of the genre (I have never read Karin Slaughter, so this isn’t a shot at her) hit a certain sweet broad sweet spot and eschew any kind of unique artistry. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does make you wonder why a show like this is on Netflix and not, say, CBS, where it would probably be well received by the millions of NCIS viewers who might find this satisfyingly edgy.

It’s perhaps a sign of the times—recognition of the fact that the more powerful they get, the more Netflix will have to be the destination not just for fans of prestige TV, and people who want to watch Seinfeld reruns, but all those viewers of anodyne drama who are no longer so square that they can’t figure out streaming services. Perhaps this is for them.

Or perhaps it just doesn’t quite work… or it does, but only in its unthreatening, limited way. This is a show where emotional connections are illustrated in shots of people staring at old photographs, where some very simple bit of plot exposition is delayed for 40 minutes by people saying things like “just trust me” instead of giving a simple answer, and where the young protagonist goes from being a jack-of-no-trades master-of-none to performing subtle heists and wearing disguises. It’s a show where the first episode is by far the best, because you can’t quite see the limits of their ambition yet. None of it quite makes sense, and while none of it is explicitly terrible, it’s not captivating either. It has none of the shameless entertainment of a guilty pleasure like Prime Video’s Reacher, and none of the heart of HBO’s Mare of Easttown. What’s left then, is just a mild-mannered television product that has been written to fit into a genre, and then forgotten. Give me instead the bombastic failure, or the arty dud; there’s a good deal of freedom in the world of streaming, and risk has been rewarded like never before on TV. So why not swing a little harder?

Pieces of Her premieres Friday, March 4th on Netflix.

Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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