At the recent Television Critics Association Press Tour, Universal Cable Productions head of development Dawn Olmstead referred to Falling Water as a “statement show.” With the award recognition and critical acclaim for Mr. Robot—this was even before Rami Malek’s Emmys victory—Olmstead sees Falling Water as a chance to prove that Mr. Robot wasn’t a fluke, and that USA is now home to high concept, edgy, serialized programming.
The connection between Falling Water, co-created by Blake Masters and the late Henry Bromell, and Mr. Robot is certainly in USA’s best interest. Regardless of how one feels about Mr. Robot’s esoteric style, the series has reframed the show’s brand in its post-“Blue Skies” era. And so it makes sense that USA, riding high on Mr. Robot’s acclaim, would work to capitalize by developing other shows that solidified this brand.
What makes less sense, unfortunately, is Falling Water.
Reminiscent of—but, according to Masters, conceived before—Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Falling Water is on a basic level a show about shared dreaming, as three separate characters begin to see their worlds converge in their sleep. We’re first introduced to Tess (Lizzie Brocheré), who dreams of a world where she gave birth to a son, but wakes up to a world where there is no such record of her having given birth. Burton (David Ajala), meanwhile, dreams of an ex-girlfriend and an image of himself falling from a building, waking up to an insider trading scandal at the company where he runs in-house security. Taka (Will Yun Lee) dreams of his invalid mother as a tortured soul, balancing his care with her with his work as a detective. What the show asks—literally, in the form of a “What if?” set of voiceovers by its shadowy dream master Bill Boerg (Zak Orth)—is whether or not we might actually all be dreaming part of the same world, which manifests as the others’ dreams start to converge in their day-to-day lives.
It’s a high concept premise, and certainly one that could generate significant dramatic interest. Unfortunately, Falling Water makes the mistake of prioritizing intrigue over interest, failing to take any of its concept or conspiracy and connect it to meaningful characterization or narrative stakes. The show rushes to establish its concept so quickly that it fails to ground any of the characters in a meaningful way: it wants us to be thinking about conspiracies and parallel worlds when we should, ideally, be gaining empathy for the show’s characters, and feeling like the fate of their dreams is something we should invest in. How can we know how their dreams are changing them when we don’t really know who they were before?
The show’s interest in the blurred lines of reality recalls Mr. Robot directly, and the idea of a metaphysical connection between different individuals has recently been explored through Netflix’s Sense8. But in both of those cases, the shows made choices that allowed the concepts to be intricately connected to character development. For Mr. Robot, the tight focus on Elliot’s perspective makes questions about reality about him as much as about Mr. Robot or fsociety, while Sense8—somewhat problematically, but ultimately effectively—took four entire episodes before it fully realized its premise and brought its characters together. We knew who the Sense8 characters were before they started realizing their connection, and we knew Elliot struggled to grasp his own reality before the full scale of that series’ mythology began unfolding. Falling Water, however, suffers through its divided focus, jumping between characters in ways that make connecting to them more difficult, as though we’re a spectator to the writers’ machinations rather than a part of the story. This is reinforced when the voiceover explaining the show’s premise—that our dreams are all part of one mosaic—actually comes before we meet two of the three characters, rushing us to the big picture when we’ve yet to understand what drives these three on a personal level. The pilot clarifies the premise of the show, but gives very little sense of how that will actually unfold within each character’s storyline as it meanders from one story to another without much momentum.
It’s true that those answers will come with time, but the series’ disinterest in grounding itself is a challenge in the early going. Masters has said they explicitly avoided adding any clear procedural elements—despite having two characters who work in law enforcement and security that could provide them—because they aspired to shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. But those shows began as low concept, and asked us to invest in complex human conditions more than in mythologies or grand conspiracies. Falling Water begins with its concept, and then expects that to be enough to invest us in characters, who are given rudimentary points of emotional interest—a missing son, a lost love, an ill mother—but whose lives seem strikingly empty otherwise. The show has none of the levity that helped Mr. Robot sustain itself in its first season, joyless and burdened by its premise instead of empowered by it. While the fact it feels like the characters sleepwalk through their lives is thematically appropriate given the concept, it doesn’t make for a particularly thrilling television series, and the slow pace drags down the lengthy pilot considerably.
Masters has promised that each episode is filled with easter eggs, clues that will contribute to the ongoing mystery of how and why these people are connected. But while I can certainly see where the show has been designed to serve what media scholar Jason Mittell frames as “forensic fandom” around complex serial narratives, Falling Water embodies the type of show that tells you it’s complex before it earns such a distinction. Its glimpses of monstrous forces in the dream world hearken to a greater conflict, but its premise only calls attention to how thin its characters are, and how disinterested the show seems in fleshing out their day-to-day lives beyond threading them together. The pilot is very clear on what its mysteries are, but there is a difference between telling us what matters and showing us why, and the pilot fails on the latter account.
Falling Water is USA’s chance to prove that Mr. Robot wasn’t a fluke, but it actually demonstrates just how difficult it is to take on the type of high concept storytelling Sam Esmail burdened himself with on that series (as the mixed reception to season two has highlighted). Mr. Robot’s success may have given USA confidence in the potential for serialized drama on the channel, but none of its co-leads have anywhere near Rami Malek’s charisma, not that they have anything to work with in a script that lacks energy. At one point, Boerg is trying to explain the concept of shared dreaming to Tess, and corrects himself by suggesting that he went “too macro.” And so it’s unfortunate that Falling Water doesn’t seem to have the same self-awareness, as it fails to generate the kind of interest that sustains a concept of this scale. While USA may have channeled the Cole Porter song that appears in the pilot and said that “Anything Goes,” this concept perhaps needed a few more restrictions in order to register as anything other than a disappointment.
- I’ve seen two episodes of the show, which were made available to critics ahead of the TCA panel mentioned above, and which will both air when the show debuts proper on October 13. USA has made two more episodes available, but I didn’t get a chance to watch them before USA revealed they were planning to sneak-air the pilot after the Mr. Robot finale tonight. If they change my perspective in any way, I’ll add a few paragraphs to this, and we can revisit when it airs in three weeks’ time.
- There were a few elements in the pilot’s “reality” scenes that I felt were particularly absurd, but Tess’ meeting with the fashion companies—or whomever she was meeting with—was insane to me. Everything about her job as a trend spotter is absurd, and felt like a satire except for how seriously all parties were taking it. She just sits there silently, shows them some images, and now green and black sportswear is the next big trend? It’s beyond comprehension, and not in a way that’s exciting or interesting. Just silly.
- I’ve always said that Sense8 would be better if it was Sense5, and I do think that show needed to reduce its number of characters to move into its core story more efficiently. However, seeing this show struggle to develop even three characters just makes me wonder if this type of “shared consciousness” show just doesn’t work unless you have a single protagonist or blow up how pilots work to stretch out the character introductions.
- I know they want me to think “Wait, why Kansas?” But the issue is that I have that question for the producers, not for the actual characters.
- If you haven’t yet watched Falling Water, I honestly think you might be better off going down a YouTube rabbit hole of “Anything Goes” performances. Typically for me, I start with Sutton Foster’s rehearsal performance, and then eventually end up at Jonathan Groff’s “Miscast” benefit performance where he attempts to recreate it.