The first two episodes of Lisey’s Story, titled “Blood Hunt” and “Blood Bool,” hit AppleTV+ on Friday, June 4th.
Stephen King is one of our generation’s most prolific writers, and because of that, he’s also one of the most adapted writers of our time. The newest project based on his work comes from AppleTV+ and director Pablo Larraín, adapting his 2006 novel Lisey’s Story. Boasting a star-studded cast led by Julianne Moore and Clive Owen, this is one of the most high-profile prestige TV King attempts in years. And while what we saw does tower over lesser recent adaptations like CBS’ messy and ridiculous The Stand, the atmospheric and dense first two episodes have their own problems to contend with.
Scott Landon (Clive Owen) is a bestselling author who lived a seemingly idyllic life with his wife Lisey (Julianne Moore), but that’s cut short when he dies unexpectedly. Two years later we find Lisey still trying to come to terms with that loss as we navigate the impact Scott had on the lives of people around him. While that sounds like a relatively simple premise, this isn’t just a meditation on one man’s life and loves. That’s because Scott had an unbelievable secret, one that Lisey has repressed and will need to uncover before finding peace after her husband’s death. And it’s that wild secret that overwhelms the debut episodes.
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Lisey’s Story takes place over a series of different timelines, with us reliving Scott and Lisey’s lives through the latter’s memories. This method veers from effective to frustrating as another great performance by Moore often gets pushed to the side for the sake of Owen’s intangible Scott. It might be reductive but there’s definitely an argument for this being renamed Scott’s Story, as that is really who we’re excavating and exploring here. While Lisey is our main character, this is really a tale about a male writer–as so many of King’s are–and his connection to something so otherworldly that even after his death it lingers, leaving a dark, confusing, and ambiguous mystery for his wife and us the viewers to solve.
How much you enjoy Lisey’s Story will likely revolve around how much ambiguity and atmosphere you can lose yourself in, as the first two episodes definitely don’t explain much that non-readers of the source material will understand. Moore fills each scene she’s in with grief and gravitas that makes you wish that this was truly her story. How often do we get to see a woman truly grieve? To really explore the ways that someone has to survive the death of another? Instead, Lisey’s life becomes filled with other people.
There’s her self-harming sister, Amanda (Joan Allen), who had a deep and unexpected connection to Scott and his strange past. Then there’s her husband’s colleague who’s desperate to publish an unfinished manuscript that he believes is still in the family home. And, of course, there’s Scott himself, because you don’t cast Clive Owen and really kill him off in the early moments of the show. Make no mistake, Scott is dead but he is still arguably the lead of Lisey’s Story. That’s mostly due to the fact that Lisey is on a sort of post-mortem treasure trail left by her husband. But while that seems ripe for a useful and unexpected take on the narrative MacGuffin it’s barely utilized in any real way except to push the story forward.
While the first episode goes for a decidedly slow and steady take on building tension, most of that is lost as we head into the second episode. It’s filled with jarring flashbacks both real-world and otherwise that are sometimes hard to follow, but the confusing shifts and tone aren’t pointedly experimental or surreal enough to make that murkiness feel like a conscious choice. It’s a shift that might draw some viewers in but could easily turn off those who were engaged by the slow burn consistency of the first episode. For this reviewer, it felt like a Hannibal-lite attempt at mixing high art with a genre that never quite melded during the debut episodes.
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The one thing that does shine, though, is Moore. As we learn about her relationship with Scott she becomes more alive, more tragic, and more sympathetic as we see her surrounded by people she loves but can barely understand as they all struggle with clearly undiagnosed mental health problems. That’s another space the show has yet to truly deliver on; the supernatural can be a great analogous place to explore mental health and trauma, but here each character’s mental state is merely used as a sort of shield or excuse that normal people use to explain things they don’t understand. But it’s loath to actually make a statement. Instead, it wavers between using self-harm and catatonia for narrative tools or shock, and as a way to hint that mentally ill people are sort of ESP manic pixie dream people.
Lisey’s Story is definitely more ambitious and stylized than your average King adaptation. It boasts a great turn from a powerful if underused Moore. But from the first two episodes, it’s yet to find its footing, struggling to balance the deep topics it presents and the tragic treasure hunt at its core.
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