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“Feud: Capote vs the Swans” reviewed

There’s an unfortunate meta in-joke in episode two of Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans. Truman Capote, the celebrity-obsessed celebrity author, has been cast out of New York café society circa 1977. He is at home, bloated and blotto, inhaling Chinese takeout in front of the television. What he’s watching is an episode of Family, the landmark 1976-80 TV series that remains unsurpassed in portraying the real-life emotional dynamics between parents and children. “The writing is sooooo good,” says the frustrated Capote, who compares it to Tennessee Williams, concluding: “Even when they treat each other terribly, they still love each other.”

That, the new season of Feud (out January 31 on FX) suggests, was the life this literary legend longed for—the right to unconditional support from people you’ve treated like shit. Primary screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz (the Pulitzer-nominated playwright and creator/showrunner of ABC’s Brothers & Sisters) probably hoped to produce something approaching Family’s emotional truth. Unfortunately, both men missed the mark.

Feud 2 doesn’t come close to Tennessee Williams, or even a mediocre episode of Family, in its portrayal of relationship conflict. It’s yet another glossy, glassy production by Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, Nip/Tuck, Monster), compelling as melodrama but unsatisfying as a study of actual humans. This is a brisk, bitchy eight hours of bitter eye candy that feels like about 120 minutes of consequential content.

The setup: Truman Capote, a gay man raised in the South, achieved literary fame back when you could do that once and spent decades drinking the proceeds away. Capote did it twice. His 1958 novel Breakfast At Tiffany’s became the iconic movie; and his 1965 tome In Cold Blood was a massive bestseller that birthed the true-crime genre. At his apex, Capote befriended a circle of top NYC socialites, including Babe Paley, the wife of CBS chairman William Paley. For Capote’s follow-up to In Cold Blood, he planned to spill all their secrets in a sure-to-be-smash called Answered Prayers. Capote only got as far as publishing a few chapters in Esquire. The first, “La Cote Basque, 1965″ got him iced out of society in 1977. A sample revelation: One character, thinly disguised as Babe Paley, discovered her husband scrubbing his mistress’s menstrual blood out of the bedroom carpet, an incident graphically depicted here.

About 75 percent of Capote Vs. The Swans’ first episode is a deft and provocative drama. It then drifts over seven more hours of surfaces, ultimately tapering into ridiculousness. That’s a slightly better average than Feud’s first season, probably because Murphy has better help this time around. Baitz’s scripts are less hackneyed than those of Feud: Bette And Joan, which should have co-credited Wikipedia for its heroines’ motivations. Primary director Gus Van Sant (!) gets strong performances out of a few of the Swans and creates a believable, cloistered universe.

But that’s about it. The bitchery isn’t boring, and the production design is transporting. If that’s all you require from your limited series, you will likely be yas-queens-ing on social media over Capote Vs. The Swans. But if you’re hoping for potent character observation or social satire—anything approaching about 50 percent of what Capote put in print—you may feel as starved as a ’60s socialite approaching resort season.

Naomi Watts is perfectly cast as Babe Paley, a surprisingly resilient porcelain doll faced with her husband’s infidelity, cancer, and the betrayal of her gay bestie. (Like a member of the Dramatic Justice League, Watts can vanquish a screenplay hole with one pained glance.) Diane Lane nearly steals the show in her brief appearances as the officious, astringent Slim Keith, even when later scripts practically force her to wear a “VILLAIN” sign when she demands that Capote stays canceled while she’s secretly slutting around.

Unfortunately, not all of the flock are on their level. As C.Z. Guest, the icy equestrian who was a lot more interesting IRL than she’s written here, Chloe Sevigny plays Chloe Sevigny, as usual. Meanwhile, Molly Ringwald is wooden as Joanne Carson, Capote’s final supporter. And so is Demi Moore as Ann Woodward, a blueblood Capote claims murdered her husband, resulting in her suicide. (That’s about the only truly dramatic fallout the Swans realize from the “scandal”; mostly, they just have lunch and act aggrieved.)

As Capote, Tom Hollander’s performance is karaoke—hammy layers of emotional prosthetics, all tics and affectations, seemingly copied from Capote’s many talk-show appearances in which biographers and the show itself report he was often inebriated. The scripts offer little sense of why these women would want to hang out with this guy. We are told he would listen to them when their husbands were too busy. (Straight guys in the ’60s—amirite?) We are told he was a hoot at parties. But what we are shown is a callous whiner who’s dead behind the eyes. Frankly, he’s a repulsive prick, especially to his devoted partner of decades (Joe Mantello).

What drove the literary genius to success then to social self-immolation? We are told it’s mommy issues, that he wanted to avenge the social rejection of his mother, a failed actress. We are told he meant to satirize and punish the men in “La Cote Basque, 1965,” not the women. Both come off as bullshitting—they’re just not explored enough to ring true.

To explain the motivations of this very human man, the show resorts to American Horror Story techniques, bringing an apparition of Jessica Lange as Capote’s equally cartoonish mother to encourage him to commit suicide, then later, to finish Answered Prayers. This is a lazy formula, the height of dramatic falsity. (We hate to break it to anyone who might be counting on it, but when your mother dies, she doesn’t appear to you in dreams to offer narrative-advancing context, much less goad you to meet your deadlines.)

That’s not the script’s only lapse into narrative sloppiness. Almost every point is underlined twice, if not three times; both William Paley and Slim Keith use the same metaphor of starving Capote of oxygen in different episodes. C.Z. Guest says “Don’t get it twisted” at one point, an expression not commonly used among white society ladies of the ’70s. Baitz even copies a conceit from Bette And Joan by creating a fictional documentary being done on Capote by the Maysles brothers, directors of Grey Gardens. It’s an easy way of getting at unguarded moments and uncomfortable truths, although eight hours of airtime provided plenty of space to script those from actual human interactions.

The shticky, clunky final episode rushes to explain how Capote became the man he was and why he did what he did, continuing with fantasy sequences. Unfortunately, when Zombie Demi Moore and Molly Ringwald are two-thirds of your Greek chorus, you’re on dramatically thin ice.

Ultimately, this season of Feud comes off as no contest between a cartoon and a flock of human X-rays. Maybe it would have played better under Murphy’s Monster rubric. Maybe it doesn’t matter anymore; maybe producing series for their viral moments is now considered enough.

We know surfaces matter to Ryan Murphy. We know surfaces mattered, above all else, for the people he’s chosen to portray in both seasons of Feud. Murphy’s primary production ethic continues to be that some surfaces are too pretty or messy to excavate; the pursuit of mere sensation is enough. Whether that’s worth your time depends on your patience.