For all the chatter about the internet disrupting TV, the path to platform legitimacy remains the same: star power and "serious" material. Like many cable networks before them, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu pivoted from content libraries to creative havens attracting some recognizable faces and exploring stories that wouldn't commonly appear on broadcast TV.
After a year of experimentation, Facebook Watch is ready to join the legit TV club by traveling that familiar path with Sorry for Your Loss, a half-hour drama about grief starring Elizabeth Olsen. Despite clear legitimacy thirst on Facebook's part — the show debuted last week at the Toronto International Film Festival — Sorry for Your Loss is a worthwhile entry to the 30-minute drama category and a sturdy effort on which to build a brand, if Facebook is ready for such a thing.
Sorry for Your Loss follows Olsen's Leigh in the aftermath of her husband's death. Still reeling from the loss, Leigh does everything with a dejected shrug: attend a grief support group, work as a barre instructor for her mom Amy (Janet McTeer) and try to manage the sobriety of her sister Jules (Kelly Marie Tran). Though a chance encounter with her husband's brother (Jovan Adepo) forces Leigh to slightly reconsider her outlook, there are no moments of tremendous catharsis. Leigh just slowly tries to move on with her life. The entire second episode is dedicated to cleaning up the apartment she's been avoiding for months.
The presence of such grief doesn't fully envelop the show. While Leigh navigates feeling everything and nothing all at once, the connection she shares with Amy and Jules offers a compelling view of a unique family dynamic. Flashbacks to before the incident display a close-knit trio that was still held together by Leigh's husband Matt (Mamoudou Athie). His death thus has a significant impact on them all as individuals, increasing the unease among the two sisters in particular.
And it really is unease. Despite the circumstances, Sorry for Your Loss rarely moves into a higher emotional register. No one's grieving experience is the same, so it's naive to suggest that the show offers a "realistic" view of such proceedings. But it does exhibit what happens to people when they're stuck somewhere between fully giving up and finally ready to begin to move on. That period of the grieving process — where you don't know exactly what to do but you're stuck in some kind of routine — is probably something that everyone can relate to.
Olsen, Tran and McTeer align with that vibe in their performances. Olsen does tremendous work with her eyes, and not always in ways that require tears. Her embodiment of Leigh's exhaustion feels lived in but not exhausting.
Sorry to Your Loss doesn't act as if it's unlocking a key component of the human experience. In a landscape where shows are too easily pegged to political import, this just feels like a good story about grief and empathy. It is sure to be one of the fall's better new shows, and it could totally fit on your favorite cable network or more popular streaming platform.
The issue, of course, is that it streams on Facebook Watch. The platform's enormous user base has not translated into any meaningful success for Watch. Despite a budgetary commitment of $1-2 billion and default prominent placement on the timelines of most sentient adults, a recent industry survey found that 50 percent of Facebook users hadn't even heard of the video initiative. That's not exactly Netflix-level market saturation. And even those survey results are partially deceiving, masking a bigger problem with Watch as a product. Most people are aware that there are videos on Facebook, but they assume "videos on Facebook" means cat clips or 72-minute treatises on the government's latest alligator conspiracy.
Like YouTube, Facebook faced the challenge of integrating "professional" videos onto a platform that had been littered with ephemeral miscellany for a decade. And like YouTube, Facebook has tried to signal to users that the "good" videos have arrived by a sub-brand that no one is bound to care about (RIP YouTube Red). It hasn't worked, partially because one look at the current Watch interface brings you some personalized stream of, well, ephemeral miscellany with the occasional scripted or reality show episode.
The platform horrors hide Watch's emerging stable of programming. Red Table Talk, a talk show starring Jada Pinkett Smith and Willow Smith, has gained nearly 3 million followers since its May debut. A deal with WWE for the live Mixed Match Challenge has resulted in a second season, also due this week. After an initial reality show and talk show-centric strategy, Facebook has been somewhat quietly rolling out original scripted series since late spring, beginning with SKAM Austin, the U.S. adaptation of the popular Norwegian web series. Sacred Lies, a teen drama about a cult escapee and murder suspect, debuted in July and could have easily appeared on Freeform.
None of these projects are great, nor will they help Facebook compete with Netflix. They represent the kind of pre-legitimacy experimentation seen time after time. Sorry for Your Loss and its cozy fall premiere date are intended to help Watch take that next — and first real — step toward significance in the TV industry. If it doesn't take that step, don't blame the material. Sorry for Your Loss is worth your time, even by today's standards. So blame the interface. Until Facebook can improve how people access its new content, Watch will be a lofty disappointment like Yahoo's ill-fated Screen experiment with a much bigger budget, with all the legitimacy thirst left unquenched.
Sorry for Your Loss begins streaming Tuesday, Sept. 18 on Facebook Watch.