One of the season’s most exciting new shows has an unexpected source: Facebook Watch, a feature that was quietly unfurled last summer and which, up until now, has offered little in the way of thoughtful entertainment. (A notable exception is Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk, featuring her mother and daughter in earnest, multi-generational roundtable discussions.) Sorry For Your Loss may be Watch’s first real foray into the arena of prestige scripted programming—and if it’s any indication of what’s to come, viewers have plenty reason to be hopeful.
Clocking in at just shy of a half-hour per episode, the series revolves around Leigh Shaw (Elizabeth Olsen), a young Los Angeles woman mourning the loss of her husband Matt (Mamoudou Athie) while navigating the emotional landmine of her often dysfunctional family. Sorry is beautifully written and superbly acted, exploring love and loss in the least maudlin of terms—This Is Us, this is not. It gives viewers a restrained snapshot of a family in mourning who are at times frustrating—but always unflinchingly real—with Olsen in particular delivering one of her finest performances to date.
I fear that with Facebook Watch as its home base, Sorry For Your Loss will be overshadowed by splashier TV pilots with sizeable marketing budgets. But as a career move, it’s not a huge stretch for an actress like Olsen who has prioritized risk over easy gratification since the beginning of her career. Among the 25-and-under crowd, Olsen is perhaps best known for her role as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (she of the mysterious disappearing accent) in the Avengers films, but her meatiest roles have been done in much smaller Sundance darlings like Martha Marcy May Marlene, Liberal Arts, and Ingrid Goes West. And there’s plenty here for Olsen to sink her teeth into; Leigh is a polarizing and not altogether popular character, but you get the sense that she could’ve been the mysterious distant cousin you’ve heard murmurs about at family gatherings.
Olsen plays Leigh with a wound-up physicality, constantly shrinking into herself. This is displayed in the opening scene of the first episode, which sees Leigh delivering an uneasy monologue in her grief group. In other scenes, she fills the screen with simmering rage and intensity, often directed either at sister Jules (Kelly Marie Tran) or brother-in-law Danny (Jovan Adepo). Leigh’s prickly personality is certainly a byproduct of her grief, but as in real life, it’s not a direct cause-and-effect relationship. We see in flashback scenes when she’s with Matt that she’s quick to anger, but also quick to own up to her faults. The immense loss she suffers just happens to compound those tendencies. She is an ordinary person thrust into heartbreaking circumstances, and it’s a testament to Olsen’s abilities that Leigh amounts to so much more than just the sum of her misfortunes.
There’s also something to be said about the way the show grapples unabashedly with female pain, which resonates deeply in a world where labels like “hysterical” and “difficult” are disproportionately assigned to women. The coda to episode six, “I Want a Party”, sees Leigh dropping a plate into the kitchen sink out of frustration after a key new detail emerges that makes her question the cause of Matt’s death. Her mother looks at her curiously; but instead of rebuking her, wordlessly hands Leigh more plates to smash, over and over, like a bizarre conveyor belt fueled by helplessness. It’s an image at once bewildering and poignant, and easily one of the show’s most memorable scenes.
Sorry For Your Loss takes from its title a hackneyed expression of condolence and miraculously spins it into narrative gold. The show is by turns exhilarating and painful, but it is never, ever patronizing. It understands that grieving is a lifelong, incredibly personal journey; the heartache eases over time, but there is no deadline by which someone is magically “cured”. It also does well with depicting how everyone in Leigh’s life responds differently to the tragedy, regardless of how close they were to the person that died. There is no hierarchy to grief.
Admittedly, there are some shortcomings to Sorry’s style of storytelling. Predictably, the present-day story is interspersed with flashbacks, in an overzealously color-coordinated palette of emotions. Melancholic memories are tinged with gray, while happier occasions are fleshed out in rosier, more saturated tones. Not all of the B-plots land, least of all a military widow new to Leigh’s grief group, who lays on thick the Nicholas Sparks act by reading love letters from her late husband. She is one of several characters who seem to enter and exit Leigh’s life with little explanation, and for a show this condensed, it feels like a bit of a creative misstep. The occasional distractions, however, do underscore the series’s main point: death is messy and can’t be explained away. Cruelest of all, it forces the survivor to question the arbitrary nature of every event thereafter. Life never stops moving to let the grieving catch their breath.
Unlike other shows that wallow in the darkness and depravity of their characters, Sorry is always kind to its fictional family, even when they’re hard to love. Jules is a recovering alcoholic who maintains an exactingly eye-for-an-eye relationship with everyone in her life as if she’s constantly balancing a scoreboard of favors. As siblings and co-workers, she and Leigh frequently butt heads, as if in competition to see who can be the bigger problem child. Matriarch Amy (Janet McTeer), who owns the fitness studio that employs both of her daughters, is obsessed with a laughably diluted, bath-salts-and-vision-boards kind of self-care; it’s a recurring gag that offers moments of comic relief amidst the heavy material.
The show works so well because of its insistence on confronting difficult people and issues head-on. In a pivotal flashback scene from episode four, titled “Visitor”, Leigh muses blithely about the dangers of “over-medicating”, and how there just isn’t enough research on its “long-term effects”. Her comments deal a swift verbal blow to her husband, whose Prozac prescription keeps his depression at bay. Audiences are surely keen enough to recognize Leigh’s blunder, but while Matt shuts down, the writers refuse the easy temptation of brushing her aside. The camera continues to pan doggedly between Matt and Leigh, keeping the conversation going until it spirals into an inevitable shouting match. And truthfully, this is as realistic as it gets: we still live in a world full of misconceptions about mental illness, and progress, though rarely linear, can only be made through dialogue.
In a relatively short span of time, the show has laid ground for exploring a plethora of tough issues, such as suicide and substance abuse, while successfully sidestepping the trap of tokenism. Bubbling just beneath the story’s surface is, for lack of a better term, the race factor, which thus far has only been alluded to in vague terms. Jules’s presumed adoption has yet to be addressed, though it’s been established that she has no relationship with her mother’s ex-husband (who is also Leigh’s biological father). When Leigh begins to dig into Matt’s childhood, hinting at the possibility of an abusive upbringing, her line of questioning creates a rift between her and Danny, who perceives it as a racially coded microaggression. It remains to be seen whether Sorry will get another season (fingers crossed!) or remain a limited series, but I’m certain that there are plenty more points of contention to tackle.
Somehow, in an age of increasing apathy exasperated by our overexposure to digital content, the biggest social media behemoth of them all has gifted us a master class in the practice of compassion, bolstered by an ensemble cast delivering tactful performances worthy of repeat viewings. Here’s hoping Facebook does the right thing and gives the tremendous Sorry For Your Loss an even more excellent second season.