One of the most interesting developments of TV over the last year and a half is the revitalization of Ryan Murphy. Murphy’s long been seen as a polarizing individual, with some enjoying his stylistic approach to TV. Others see Murphy as someone who falls back on camp and stock characters that ultimately fall flat. However, the last year and a half has seen Murphy combine the perfect blend of his established styles with content that actors are interested in developing. “Feud” looks to be the latest in Murphy’s repertoire to continue that trend.
Hot on the heels of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and arguably the best season of “American Horror Story,” Murphy has another hit on his hands with “Feud.” The concept behind “Feud” seems like the perfect Murphy project. It tells the story of the behind-the-scenes fighting between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis on the set of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” a horror film that received five Oscar nominations. Murphy’s team sought to reframe Marcia Clarke as a hero of feminism in “The People v. O.J.,” and if the pilot tells us anything, Murphy is going to give Davis and Crawford a level of agency unseen for actresses in the early 1960s.
Recounting the behind-the-scenes stories of Hollywood films has long been a favorite pastime of the entertainment industry. “The Artist,” “Saving Mr. Banks” and “Hitchcock” all offered a view behind the curtain with varying levels of success. Here, Murphy uses the stage of old Hollywood to deliver a poignant and zeitgeist-driven message about women in film. For years, women have been pushed aside as they age, while men get the best parts of their careers. In “Feud,” the women take charge of their own careers, and the result is the creation of career-defining art for both Davis and Crawford.
The actresses and actors on screen are just as formidable in Hollywood history as the woman they are playing. Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon have won the same number of Oscars as the respective women they’re playing. To say that they dive into the roles would be an understatement. Lange and Sarandon feast on their performances and deliver some of the most nuanced performances of their careers. The meta quality of a show about two actresses in the back half of their career redefining their careers is also at play, and Sarandon and Lange are absolutely self-aware enough to understand this. Rather than shy away, they bring their considerable charisma into the characters and instantly make them larger than life. Lange and Sarandon are the best actresses to take these roles, and the Emmys will take notice.
Lange and Sarandon will lead awards talk, but they are surrounded by a stellar cast. Alfred Molina delivers a quiet subtlety as Robert Aldrich, an iconic director in his own right. There is a great montage in the middle of the pilot featuring Molina’s pitch to various studio heads. It is an exercise in futility at times, with many studio heads echoing sexist and absurd notes. Molina sells the frustration with the annoying and oddly personal attacks against Molina and his actresses.
One of the best scenes in the pilot is the introduction of Stanley Tucci’s Jack Warner. Tucci delivers an extremely personal push back against Sarandon’s Davis and gets to the heart of the show. His sexism in the scene and hatred for Davis is conveyed to the audience in a seething diatribe that allows Tucci to flex his considerable muscles as a strong comedic performer. He comes in throwing 100 miles an hour, and Molina’s straight man volley is a marriage made in heaven.
We also get a glimpse of several other actresses who will have a role to play as the series unfolds. Catherine Zeta-Jones opens the show with a monologue that seeks to frame the show for the unaware. Zeta-Jones channels Velma Kelly to bring importance and energy to a small piece of the pilot. Judy Davis excels in a turn as Hedda Hopper, last brought to the big screen by Helen Mirren in “Trumbo.” Davis hams up Hopper, providing a less aggressive vision of the entertainment journalist to contrast Mirren’s turn. Kathy Bates, Jackie Hoffman, Alison Wright and Kiernan Shipka all make appearances that provide a solid foundation for larger roles in the series to come. Most surprising was the lack of Sarah Paulson, who will apparently be in the remaining seven episodes of the show.
Ultimately, a deep cast for a show is something that Murphy has proven to handle time and time again. This time, however, he has two actresses in another stratosphere. That said, Murphy’s given both actresses plenty to digest and give audiences. Icons in their own right, Lange and Sarandon are primed to deliver career-best performances. No matter your opinion on Murphy, he knows how to attract talent to his projects.
Last but certainly not least, the technical proficiency of “Feud” is a masterclass in television production. The poppy costumes and set design feel contemporary and distinctly 1960s at the same time. The color palette chosen for the show makes the screen pop with color. Even the title sequence pops with color and ingenuity reminiscent of Saul Bass. Costume designer Lou Eyrich uses the two icons to his advantage, complete with dozens of costume changes. The diverse costumes are incredible, and he perfectly nails this. The production design is intricate and sprawling. We transition from mansions to movie studios to Broadway theaters seamlessly. The sets feel extremely real and the background gives the viewer almost as much to feast on as the actresses on screen. The show is the most technically proficient of Murphy’s career, and that is no easy battle to win.
This is a complete show, ready to thrive at the Emmys in September. This is must-watch television, and will easily fill the place of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” at the next Emmys. This is a show that will utilize its setting to tell a poignant and relevant story about women assuming agency. “Feud” is among the best shows of 2017, and should be a critical and audience darling moving forward.