Not sure if you knew this, but 2020 sucked. Filled with loneliness, isolation, and a lot of time to think about our lives… sounds like the makings of a television series, right? Well, creator David Weil ran with everything we felt as a country last year and turned it into “Solos,” a series of seven monologues with a sci-fi bent aimed at illustrating “that even during our most seemingly isolated moments, in the most disparate of circumstances, we are all connected through the human experience.”
Fans who eagerly consumed Weil’s Nazi revenge series “Hunters” last year are in for a shock; in lieu of violence and vengeance, Weil substitutes a hefty dose of depression, drama, and trauma that, in a way, might make you feel numb the same way one did with “Hunters.” The tone is set the minute we meet Anne Hathaway’s Leah (pronounced like Leia, which I’m assuming was to avoid copyright infringement.)
Leah spends a majority of her time in a basement attempting to solve time travel. She also has a mom dying slowly from ALS. The problem is that once Leah cracks the code and starts interacting with various versions of herself it’s soon discovered why she wants to leave the present so badly.
After watching Hathaway beautifully sob and confess her love for her mom (and, by proxy, reminding everyone that their parents are going to die one day), the second episode involves a man named Tom (Anthony Mackie) meeting his replacement robot (?) that will be there for his wife and kids when Tom dies of a terminal illness.
Six of the seven episodes in “Solos” focuses on death and existential dread, and after the year we’ve had… it’s a lot. Though the goal is to discuss the unity of human existence, it’s hard to get from these episodes enough to make that connection — especially when the connection itself is so bland. The episode with Mackie’s character feels like a derivative take on the “Black Mirror” episode “Be Right Back,” which dealt with a woman getting a copy of her husband.
In fact, it’s evident Weil really wanted to create something akin to “Black Mirror,” though that’s hard to do with a series of monologues that will remind you of “Coastal Elites” (if you remember that at all) for the science-fiction set. Genre aside, it’s just really hard to make a monologue-centric series compelling and the times when “Solo” is enjoyable is when there are other characters around.
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Because of the pandemic, though, the actors engaging in any dialogue often do so with themselves. Hathaway talks to two versions of herself; Mackie talks to himself. Helen Mirren and Constance Wu, by contrast, speak directly to the camera, which can feel like interesting theater but not compelling television.
The solo “Solos” episodes aren’t outright boring because of the talent involved. It’s easy to be moved by Hathaway, Mackie, Mirren, Wu, and Uzo Aduba crying and screaming (both of which is in heavy supply in all the episodes.) But too often the emotion is meant to carry a weak story.
Aduba’s episode feels like a takeoff of every science-fiction show going back to “The Twilight Zone.” The episode has a narrative arc that is interesting only because we’re unclear what’s happening. A virus (yes) has decimated humanity while Aduba’s Sasha stays safe in a government-provided safehouse. But when her Alexa-esque computer tells her it’s safe to go outside Sasha refuses, convinced it’s a scam or way to harm her.
Is Sasha a Karen who refuses to listen to what Big Government tells her? Or is she a woman so scared by everything she’s “living her life in fear” as numerous Twitter commenters would say? Either way, it’s a bit of a cringe-y premise for a sketch but does have some compelling drama once the punishment is meted out to her.
If you need to watch one episode of “Solos” it’s “Nera,” starring Nicole Beharie. Where each episode suffers from a basic story, this one is delightfully familiar: an expectant mother gives birth early and discovers her baby, conceived using futuristic fertility drugs, might have some unexpected side effects.
Again, in a world where vaccine hesitancy is high and side effects are used as an excuse this episode feels unintentionally irresponsible, but Beharie is just so good. There’s just enough story to keep you wanting more, and it never overstays its welcome. If anything, it might have been better for “Solos” to be a linear narrative about the things science could invent and what that would mean for us — but that would require more than one performer on-set.
It all comes together, or tries to, in the episode “Stuart” wherein Dan Stevens’ character, Otto, attempts to jog the memory of a man with Alzheimer’s who played by Morgan Freeman. In a series that has minor callbacks to previous episodes, this one attempts to tie them all together unnecessarily. It’s messy and never feels like a plan that was in the works from the beginning — but, again, Stevens and Freeman are good.
“Solos” is a great example of how a good cast and good directors (including Zach Braff and Sam Taylor-Johnson) can be stymied by a pandemic. The series instantly dates itself with its monologues and it’s doubtful fans will watch more than one episode considering there’s no actual plot. “Solos”, in the end, is what to watch if you’re looking for something experimental with actors you love.
“Solos” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.