Ryan Murphy’s productions tend to be a little, well, melodramatic. That’s fair to say. They don’t merely dip their toes into dramatics; they practically relish in extremism. And when you deal with the eternal overblown anguish shared between two of Hollywood most bombastic stars, you nearly have carte blanche to go all-out wild. So, why does Feud: Bette and Joan — for all its inherent goodness — not ultimately feel like Murphy, the quickly accomplished provocateur, at his absolute prime? At least, not yet.
Very clearly following the same mold as last year’s The People vs. O.J. Simpson, Feud is a period piece reminiscing on a simpler past while also reflecting on our timely present. Sure, the anthology series is looking at the bitter rivalry shared between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis during the production of 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? But more than that, it’s a cutting commentary on Hollywood’s inherent sexism, ageism, and media obsession. And while it’s (quite appropriately) hammier than Lakeland, FL’s Pigfest, it lacks the cutting intensity and vigorous urgency that made O.J. such a smash.
That said, “The Other Woman,” the second episode once again directed by Murphy, is a noticeable improvement from the already-successful pilot. More confident, sharp-witted, deft and engrossing than the exposition-heavy introduction, Feud isn’t nearly as marvelous as it damn well should be, but it’s making healthy strides towards the finish line, one that’ll surely be more emotional than my feeble little mind can ever imagine. It’s less rigorous than it is conspicuous. It flaunts its clear intents like the expensive jewels wrapped around Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Davis’ (Susan Sarandon) person.
As we watch the continued behind-the-scenes misadventures, the show’s agency isn’t as strong as it was this time last year for Murphy’s previous series, but the bricks are laid. The build-up is strong, and I can only hope (as someone who — admittedly — isn’t all that familiar with the actual, real-life story) that the tremendous anticipation is worthy. The emotions are more skillfully heightened; the drama is more richly expanded. Feud never forgets Bette and Joan’s crippling weaknesses, notably their petty, overanxious need for relevancy, recognition and retribution, which balloons to nearly delirious results in this newest episode. What Feud lacks in sensitivity, at least thus far, it almost makes up for in pure, unrestrained ruthlessness. The fangs are piercing out. The blood is richly spewing. The visceral anger that’s always suggested is, once again, hinted upon.
The performances are, of course, grand. There’s nothing I didn’t say last week that I wouldn’t say again, except that Sarandon is better than I suggested and Stanley Tucci, as Jack Werner, might bloody well walk away with this show strapped to his shoulders. The production design is, of course, truly spectacular, not to mention the period detail, with FX’s all-expense budget paying handsomely in the looks department. It’s a stunner, even when it’s not quite a stinger just yet. The nails need to sink in deeper in the skin.
You marvel, but you don’t yet love. You appreciate, yet you do not yet adore. Feud: Bette and Joan is improving, and I only hope to throw more compliments with each week, but it still feels weirdly empty — even with all its pointed commentary I already mentioned. It’s not frustrating; it’s just mildly disappointing. But we’re just getting to the good stuff.
Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sunday nights on FX.