BY Eric Rezsnyak
The long-awaited — literally long, nearly seven years — second season of FX’s “Feud” series was one of my most-anticipated TV shows of 2024. The absolutely fabulous trailer promised a season of high drama, glamorous women hellbent on revenge, savage gossip, and mid-century lifestyle porn. Don’t take my word for it; check it out for yourself:
So I found myself confused and, I’ll admit, disappointed by the two-episode season premiere that aired last night on FX/Hulu. Please understand: the show that we got is brilliantly acted, has some terrific writing, and is interesting enough to keep me coming back. But it is not what were promised by the relentless promotional campaign. We were hyped to believe this would be a frothy, soapy romp — the promos even referred to the Swans “the original Housewives,” a direct comparison to Bravo’s “Real Housewives” and ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” What we got was a sad, serious exploration of self-destruction. Is that a bad thing? No. It’s just not what we were promised.
But let’s talk about what we got. In the two-part premiere, directed by Gus Van Sant, we jump from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, seeing great American author Truman Capote (Tom Hollander) as he is introduced to the upper crust of New York City’s socialites, led by Babe Paley (Naomi Watts). Events quickly jump from bon vivant Truman ingratiating himself to Babe, to his eventual betrayal of Babe and her inner circle via a magazine story that included thinly veiled accounts of their scandalous secrets, to the fallout as the “swans,” as Capote dubs them, ice him out and Capote spirals spectacularly.
There is plenty of juice to squeeze from this story. Already in the first two episodes we have not only multiple bouts of infidelity by Babe’s husband, TV magnate Bill Paley (Treat Williams in one of his final roles), but also a spectacularly vicious revenge gambit sprung by one of his former paramours, all to humiliate the high-powered couple. We have Capote spinning the tale of a Long Island socialite, Ann Woodward (Demi Moore), who he publicly accuses of deliberately murdering her husband. There’s a shocking Thanksgiving brawl between Capote and his married beau (Russell Tovey), right in front of Molly Ringwald’s salad. And we haven’t even touched most of the rest of the Swan inner circle, which includes Slim Keith (Diane Lane), C.Z. Guest (Chloe Sevigny), and Lee Radziwell (Calista Flockhart).
I frequently say on our podcast that people need to stop judging creative works by what we expect them to be, and instead appreciate them for what they are. I think that applies here — but I do think there’s a legitimate criticism to be levied against a promotional campaign that misled viewers in regards to the tone of the project. Regardless, it’s clear that the tone of this series is going to be a serious, personal, contemplative exploration of self destruction and the price of fame/fortune — not only Capote, but for the Swans as well. And looking at it from that standpoint, the first two episodes are successful.
The acting is the big draw here, as the production has delivered a stacked cast to play the Swans. Naomi Watts is the focal character of the show, and she is absolutely nailing this part, a mix of steely resolve and wounded bird. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Watts in such a meaty role, and it’s a pleasure to see her own the screen again. Diane Lane isn’t in the two-part premiere that much, but she’s fantastic every second she appears. I can’t wait to learn more about her Slim Keith, who has a fascinating backstory and clearly brooks no fools. Chloe Sevigny brings a clipped delivery and a quieter intensity to her C.Z. Guest, the most pliable of the Swans. It is literally always great to see both Demi Moore and Molly Ringwald, although they are really more cameos than fully fleshed-out characters at this point. There’s also a cameo in Episode 2 that was exquisite, and a welcome return for a much-missed Murphy cast member. (My god, she is a pro.)
I’m torn on Tom Hollander as Capote. Truman Capote was a caricature himself, so you can’t knock that element of his portrayal here. I found him most effective in the scenes set earlier in Capote’s life, where there’s an effortlessness to the way he — forgive the pun — swans about a room, dazzling parties with his wit and gossip. Where I struggled with Hollander were in the scenes set later in Capote’s life, where every ounce of effort he was putting into the character was evident on the screen. Getting Capote right is a difficult needle to thread, although it has been done on screen a few times before, notably Toby Jones in Infamous. Inhabiting Capote is hard work, I am sure. But when I am repeatedly taken out of a scene because I can’t stop thinking, “Oh he is REALLY going for it here,” I think that’s a problem. I felt the same way about Bradley Cooper in Maestro. Acting is a craft, and generally speaking I look to appreciate the final product, but don’t need to be aware of the work it took to get there. In my opinion. I do think it’s possible that showing all that work is a deliberate acting/directing choice here, because it really feels like EVERYTHING in Capote’s life at that point was difficult, and he wanted to evoke that. I guess we’ll see in future episodes.
The writing in the show is generally quite good. There are multiple lines that struck a chord with me. Where I think the writing is failing the show is in establishing these characters in a way to maximize audience buy in. I’m not sure how many people under the age of 40 even know who Truman Capote is in 2024; I’m fairly confident very few of them have any concept of the Swans. While I knew the Paleys because of the Paley Center and their philanthropy, and Lee Radziwell because of, frankly, Carole Radziwell and “Real Housewives of New York,” the rest of these characters are virtually unknown. For a minute I wondered if Molly Ringwald’s character was Johnny Carson’s wife, but I guess she’s an artist from that time period? I have absolutely no idea who Joe Mantello is playing here. Is it Capote’s friend? Former lover? I know he’s an author of some kind, but that’s about it. In the first season of “Feud,” it was easy to care about the lives of the central characters, because they were icons. There’s a heavier lift required here, because most of these people are relative unknowns. As of now, I’m not sure the writing is living up to that challenge. (Side note: they’re doing such a poor job of establishing that I don’t think Flockhart’s Radziwell was even introduced on the show; she just shows up in E2 as part of the group.)
Also on the writing tip, I’m going to bring up my concerns about what appears to be a flawed moral compass here. Multiple times in Episode 2 specifically, Joe Mantello’s character — whoever that may be — lectures a cancer-stricken Babe Paley that it’s her responsibility to forgive her former good friend, Truman. It is possible that the intention there is to show us Babe’s resolve being tested, but her standing firm, even as it pains her. But I could not help but think that the showrunners are creating the narrative that Truman was the victim here, and that the Swans really should have let bygones be bygones. I certainly hope that is not the case. I know there are moral gray areas. I get that Capote was an artist and that he was just producing his version of “art.” But if they’re actually trying to create the narrative that Capote was in the right here, and the women who he publicly humiliated in order to gain greater levels of fame and wealth are to blame because they were too proud to forgive him — that is wild. WILD!
As of Episode 2, the show is walking a tightrope of showing off Capote’s worst impulses while also establishing his motivations for doing what he’s doing. If they’re trying to establish sympathy for him, I will say, it is not working for me. I get that he was a tortured artist trying to live up to his once-great promise. I get that he was an obvious homosexual in a time where society was openly hostile (to put it mildly) to gay people. I understand that it could be infantilizing to play queer court jester to the elites of American high society. I respect that addiction is a terrible disease that exacts an awful price. But if this show becomes the Truman Capote Apology Project, that’s going to be…challenging. Brilliant writer and fascinating cultural icon? Sure. Victim, especially in this scenario? Absolutely not.