HBO’s ‘Mosaic’ Probably Should Not Work, And Yet It Does


There are a bunch of reasons I shouldn’t like Mosaic. HBO’s new murder mystery from Steven Soderbergh — airing in six parts, with a new episode every night this week, and a two-part finale on Friday — ticks off a number of boxes on the Things That Usually Annoy Brian list, which contains TV and movie complaints, mostly, but also things like “the cardboard drink carriers you get from fast food places should have higher walls for stability so my large iced tea doesn’t tip over when I’m on my way home.” It’s a long, sad list, and I only mention it now to inform you that I am entranced by Mosaic despite the show running afoul of a few of my pet peeves.

But first, the plot, quickly, if you haven’t been following along or are hopelessly lost: Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone), a famous children’s book author and illustrator who owns a staggering number of sweaters and winter coats, goes missing. Four years later, after Olivia’s grifter/lover Eric (Frederick Weller) has been arrested for her murder, Eric’s sister Petra (Jennifer Ferrin) shows up in Utah to investigate and possibly clear her brother’s name with the help of a local cop named Nate (Devin Ratray). They uncover plenty of things that don’t add up, many of them relating to Olivia’s live-in handyman, Joel (Garrett Hedlund). It’s a whole thing.

Now to the list. Examples of the things Mosaic does that usually turn me off include:

– Huge parts of it are shot in that weird, cold, almost blue-ish style, like we’ve seen from other Serious Drama type shows, from The Killing to Ozark to The Alienist. I find it so hard to engage with shows that do this. It’s almost like they’re intentionally holding the viewer at a distance, and while that remove can set the mood and tone for a series where bad things happen, it all comes off very bleak. Which, again, is fine, mostly, but I’ve seen it done so often on shows that don’t do it well that there’s a Pavlovian reaction to it in my brain now. It’s gotten to the point that I honestly think I tricked myself into liking American Gods more than I should have just because it had a lot of color.

– It jumps around so much. The time jumps happen early and often and, while they are usually preceded by a “Two Weeks Earlier” or something on the screen, it makes it hard to follow exactly where you are in the story and what characters’ motivations are in the moment we’re seeing them. Your best guide is facial hair — some of the male characters have beards they apparently shaved or grew over the longer jumps in time — but that doesn’t help much with the female characters. I feel like I might need to create a spreadsheet by the time this is over. It doesn’t help that the show has about a dozen characters and most of them are white guys with names like Joel or Nate or Michael. I can’t keep my Joels and Nates straight in real life and I’ve known some of them for over a decade.

– The pacing is strange. To be fair, this is a by-product of the way the show was conceived. It was originally released as an app that let viewers watch the story in the order they wanted, kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure book about discovering which creep murdered Sharon Stone. The HBO version has been edited together in a more linear-ish way, but the result leaves a few long scenes where very little happens, followed by furious deluges of plotactionplottwistplot, followed by more long and slow scenes. It can be hard to keep yourself focused and calibrated when a show does this, especially if you, like me, have the attention span and memory of a goldfish with ADHD.

– It takes place in a wealthy Utah town where people probably ski a lot, and skiing is a dumb activity, in my opinion, because it is very expensive and involves flinging yourself down a cold mountain. You can do that for free, or better yet, not at all. Doesn’t have anything to do with the show, really, but it’s on my big list, too, and I feel better now that’s it off my chest.


And yet, despite all of the potential landmines, I am in on Mosaic. I am so in. I must know who did the Whodunnit and I have theories. Was it Eric the con man? Was it Joel the angry drunken artist and handyman? Was it Paul Reubens? Did you know Paul Reubens is in this show? Because he is. So is Beau Bridges, as a police officer who may or may not have a secret, because everyone on Mosaic may or may not have a secret. And Nate, the cop, is played by the actor who played Buzz in Home Alone. Again, it’s a whole thing.

The trick here is that it’s Soderbergh, a director and creator who is currently on a mission to take a sledgehammer to the traditional Hollywood framework. He’s so ambitious with some of his ideas that even when they seem insane — a TV show that’s also an app but is also a TV show and it airs on HBO every night for a week in January and Buzz from Home Alone tries to figure out who murdered Sharon Stone — I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt, for creating chaos if nothing else. It’s rarely “nothing else” though, because he’s so clearly talented that he can make even these insane things work.

Which Mosaic does, mostly. That blue-ish tint that drives me nuts? I stopped noticing it after a while. The time jumps and odd pacing? Once you settle in with the show (it’s probably better as a binge-watch, so you can keep everyone straight), it creates a kind of manic energy that adds suspense to what originally seemed like drawn-out scenes where nothing happens. It’s all a good reminder that almost anything can work when it’s done at a high level by someone who knows what they’re doing. The show is still a little messy and disjointed in places, again, because it was put together later after being introduced as a million short clips for a totally different platform, but that starts to feel like the charm of it after a while. I can’t believe how into it I am. And yet, here I am, questioning everything I thought I knew for a fact.

Well, almost everything. Skiing is still bad.