As early as the first episode, I was questioning the point of Love & Death. A competent true-crime drama with a first-rate cast, it has the weighty feel of prestige drama and nicely realized period production values—qualities which got me through it. But seven episodes fail to elevate its generic biopic beats into something essential.
Love & Death is set in rural Texas in the late seventies and begins with an extramarital affair between discontented Christian housewife Candy Montgomery (Elizabeth Olsen) and taciturn engineer Allan Gore (Jesse Plemons). Candy isn’t all that attracted to Allan, but feels a stirring connection, and since her marriage to inexpressive husband Pat (Patrick Fugit) has gone stale, she enters into the relationship with a casualness verging on experimental curiosity. For his part, Allan is devoted to his neurotic, controlling wife Betty (Lily Rabe); nonetheless, he submits to Candy’s charms, leading to a months-long series of rendezvous. The affair eventually fades out, but the truth ultimately emerges—first for the forgiving Pat, and then for a devastated Betty. When Betty calls Candy on it, a garden-variety case of adultery quickly explodes into tragic violence.
Love & Death is based on a true story, and—well, feels like something based on a true story. Run-of-the-mill characters with predictable social dynamics engage in expected behaviors that lead to the show’s one extraordinary element: a gruesome killing worthy of a horror film. Unfortunately, an unusual real-world death doesn’t necessarily translate into an extraordinary TV mystery; that’s certainly not the case here. Evidently, at the time, Love & Death’s central crime created a true media storm, but compared to the shrill thrum of crises that permeate our modern news cycle, it can’t hold a candle. Instead, Love & Death’s true-story title cards practically draw a misleading dotted line to Fargo, the brilliant anthology series that tells similar tales of murderous mayhem—but with humor, quirkiness, eloquence, and surprise, all assets in short supply here. (Perhaps my sensibilities in this arena have been bludgeoned by decades of outrageous fictional death.)
What Love & Death does have is a sensational Elizabeth Olsen, who puts on a clinic in the lead role, convincingly inhabiting the key central character. Fully immersed, she is totally believable as the frustrated religious housewife whose vague dissatisfaction leads her down dangerous paths. The series also has Lily Rabe, who is heartbreaking as poor Betty Gore, bringing a uniquely unlikable—and yet ultimately sympathetic—foil to life. Whatever personality the show has is thanks to these two actresses, whose personalities stand out from the humdrum community they inhabit. The impressive supporting cast—Fugit, Plemons, Elizabeth Marvel, Krysten Ritter—do everything expected of a script that largely underserves them. Well, except perhaps for Tom Pelphrey, who comes to life nicely during late courtroom scenes that finally fill in the fuzzy details of the crime, where glimmers of interesting nuance finally creep into the mystery.
None of these dramatics, though, are enough. Ultimately, Love & Death doesn’t achieve much more than a tawdry Lifetime-movie vibe, expending considerable energy in search of sympathy for people and a situation it’s difficult to care much about.