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Neil LaBute’s First TV Venture ‘Full Circle’ Is Experimental and Exhausting

Neil LaBute's First TV Venture 'Full Circle' Is Experimental and Exhausting

Full Circle,” a new half-hour drama premiering on DirecTV’s Audience Network tonight, October 9th at 10pm, offers up a chilling concept — a world in which everyone talks like they’re Neil LaBute characters. And indeed, in the show, they are — the series was scripted by the playwright/director in his first small screen venture (though not his last), a self-contained 10-episode arc consisting of a series of meals all eaten at the same sleek Los Angeles restaurant, of pairs of dining partners daisy-chained together in a fashion inspired by “La Ronde.” There’s the young trophy wife, Bridgette (Minka Kelly), and her workaholic entertainment lawyer husband Stanley (Julian McMahon), and in the next episode we get Stanley with his brutish stand-up comedian client Jace (David Boreanaz), who’s just landed himself in hot water after making some offensive jokes on Leno, and from there we go to the spin control dinner Jace’s people have arranged with Chan’Dra (Keke Palmer), the sister of a kid he mocked in his act and whose assault he indirectly caused. And so on, and presumably back around to the beginning.

LaBute was only involved in writing “Full Circle,” not in its production, but it is unmistakably, caustically his — each exchange is a verbal battle, some more overtly than others, and most showcase men at their most obfuscating, defensive, competitive worst. Shot very functionally, with a limited setting and three-act structure — appetizers, the main course and dessert are all marked out with title cards — “Full Circle” resembles theater more than it does contemporary television, though it could be looked at as an ongoing bottle episode in which we get by on hints of the lives that are supposedly continuing on outside the restaurant through our 30-minute sessions with the characters.

LaBute’s written some nasty women before, from Rachel Weisz’s manipulative art student in “The Shape of Things” to the laughably evil matriarchy in his remake of “The Wicker Man,” but he’s been best known as a chronicler of male anxiety, rage and fear about females, territory he first explored on screen with his directorial debut “In the Company of Men.” L.A. provides territory that’s really a little too rich for him — the four episode of the show offered to the press include a pair of showbiz types who vie for the title of most toxic, McMahon’s Stanley and Boreanaz’s Jace, whose installment together is an almost unbearable crescendo of misogyny.

“What is it with fat chicks and tattoos? It baffles me,” muses Jace, who wins that title, by the way. “Okay sweetie, nothing’s going to help you, don’t try to trick my eyes with the ink, because it isn’t working. You’re still an ugly, fat piece of shit, and no picture of Wonder Woman on your ankle is going to change that.” He then calls out Lena Dunham, though not by name — “What a pig!” Jace claims his comedy reflects a persona — they’re just jokes, he insists to Chan’dra later, but when in the comfortable and only mildly combative company of his lawyer he lets loose bile that’s hard to believe, just line after line about homosexuality, race and women, women, women, including a set of bets with Stanley about banging various waitresses serving them that night.

Jace is so ugly a character that he can’t be turned around, even as the set-up demands that two sides of each character be shown — Stanley, for instance, goes from trying to bully his way into preserving his marriage in the series’ second episode to seeming more sympathetic when acting as the voice of reason for Jace. No, all we see of Jace on the other end is that he’s afraid, his career threatened — his bluster about comedy and about how it shouldn’t be held accountable in the same way as normal speech is a distillation of many an embattled stand-up’s argument (about, say, rape jokes). He’s there as an idea, a representative of a type of fight and the type of personality that might go with it.

But most of the characters in these episodes come across as ideas, the window of time we’re given with them too short to see them as more than that. The show’s really just a set of linked one-act plays, ones with a heightened, self-consciously artificial tone (they’re stagey in the way that theater tends to be when transplanted to the big or small screen) to match the unusual structure. That structure, which is both old (“La Ronde” was written in 1897) and, on TV, strikingly experimental, is certainly formally interesting, but “Full Circle” is in the end an exhausting, punishing watch, a concentration of the type of corrosive encounters LaBute specializes in, repeated over and over and over. It suggests a city filled with restaurants populated by couples trying to cut each other to ribbons with words, night after night, anger and insecurity flaring up in dialogues over burratas all over a nightmare L.A. in which every meal is a failed occasion, a botched apology, a wrecked anniversary, a hesitant divorce request. How does anyone ever find it in them to eat?

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