Cast: Morgan Freeman, Anne Hathaway, Helen Mirren, Uzo Aduba, Anthony Mackie, Dan Stevens, Nicole Beharie and Constance Wu
Directors: David Well, Sam Taylor-Jonson, Zach Braff and Tiffany Johnson
Rating: 3.5 Stars (Out of 5)
The world is under siege. The ‘new normal' is anything but reassuring. Humans in confinement, pulled apart from each other and grappling with grief, anxiety and befuddlement, are fending for themselves. But are we really alone? And are we entirely safe? Solos, Amazon Studios' seven-part anthology series, liberally employing sci-fi devices, shows us why and how we may be neither. If in the face of a devastating pandemic we aren't without hope, it is only because a sense of solidarity hasn't deserted mankind. Healing is always within the realms of possibility.
Showrunner David Weil (the creator of the Al Pacino series Hunters) crafts a showcase for eight fine actors who bring empathy and intelligence to bear upon the interpretation of isolated, beleaguered individuals as they struggle to seek solace within themselves – and without.
The stories, underpinned by a tech-heavy, futuristic quality, span a wide time-frame and encompass nearly the entire 21st century. Some of the characters reveal themselves through monologues; others lay bare their inner demons through a mix of confessions and conversations (with bots and other voice mechanisms integrated into the storyline).
Each episode takes its title from a character: Leah, Tom, Peg, Sasha, Jenny, Nera and Stuart. Each protagonist has a distinct story, not necessarily limited only to experiences during the coronavirus outbreak although all of them (but one) are restricted within a closed space.
Besides Weil (three episodes), Solos is directed by Sam Taylor Johnson (two), Zach Braff and Tiffany Johnson (one each). The show is bookended by Anne Hathaway and Morgan Freeman. In the opening episode, written by Weil and directed by Braff, Hathaway is Leah, a woman in her mid-30s slogging away in a basement to make contact with her future self. She is desperate to travel forward in time. She believes that is only way she can help her ALS-afflicted mother out of her pain.
Leah's initial verbal exchanges are with sister Rachel and her mom. Both remain unseen. When her dogged pursuit of “the future me” bears some fruit, she communicates with two other versions of herself beaming into her workspace from time-zones separated by a decade.
At the other end of Solos, Freeman (absolutely terrific) is a dementia-stricken octogenarian, Stuart. A young visitor, Otto (Dan Stevens), who has a score to settle, confronts him. But can Stuart, now in a state in which he can only see shadows where there should be people, make sense of what he is being held to account for? Look for the answer in the question that the episode asks upfront – each of the seven stories opens with a question that sets the tone – “Who are you if you can't remember who you are?”
Indeed, Solos, within segments that are wholly self-contained and across episodes that are not, moves back and forth on the wings of floating memories, happy and sad, clear and fading, therapeutic and unsettling. The characters stumble when remembrances run into rough, enervating patches. Stuart says, “Memory isn't simply a thing you have. It's a promise, it's a vow to the one you love.” It indeed is, but it isn't always unreliable.
Even amid the most distressful moments, love, or its mere anticipation, has the power to lift us. Or, at least, it is ideally expected to. The solo acts that make up this Amazon Prime Video show speak to this very moment in human history, a time of tremendous turmoil. They also evoke the universality of the collective of experiences that make us human even as we are cooped up in our homes.
The remaining five characters in Solos share their emotional states during and after the pandemic. Each does so in a manner unique to him or her. In Episode 2, Anthony Mackie, directed by Weil (also the writer of the segment), is pitch perfect as Tom, who meets a lookalike, who is every inch his carbon copy, in order to prepare the latter for the job of replacing him when he is gone.
Tom's story finds an echo in the next tale, that of Peg, played scintillatingly by Helen Mirren. The episode is directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson with Weil's script. Mirren fleshes out a self-effacing 71-year-old woman who, unaware “how much I meant to me,” has spent her life evading risks. Now she has nothing to lose. She signs up for a study that would allow her to travel in a spaceship to the farthest reaches of the universe. The question the episode poses is: “How far would you travel to find yourself again?” Peg's answer is unequivocal.
Mirren infuses her performance with wisdom, warmth and wit that flow into and out of each other, delivering in the process a vivid character study that stands out in a lively series that thrives on an array of brilliant turns.
Uzo Aduba, propelling an episode helmed by Weil with a script by Tori Sampson, is electrifying as Sasha, who refuses to vacate an isolation home though 20 years have elapsed since the pandemic. She has completed well over 7,000 days in the house and is now the only inmate left here. Her ‘companion bot', Zen, tries very hard to convince her. A battle of attrition ensues.
In Episode 5, directed by Weil and written by Bekka Bowling, Constance Wu is Jenny, a woman married for seven and a half years and desperate to have a child. The consequences are unsettling. Desire, memory, guilt and defiance combine to make her story, delivered unblinkingly strait to camera, is as vexed as mankind's current fight to keep insanity at bay. Wu is absolutely wow.
The sixth and penultimate story has Nicole Beharie in the lead role – yes, this segment has other actors portraying a boy who goes from being a just-born child to a teenager in the span of ten minutes or so. The episode is written by Stacy Osei-Kuffour and directed by Tiffany Johnson.
Beharie delivers an impressively controlled performance as Nera, a pregnant young woman assailed by a sense of being unwanted and unloved. Her ordeal starts on a stormy night. Nera goes into labour with no medical assistance at hand. The survivor's instinct kicks in and her story takes an unexpected turn.
Taking a cue from the range of human experiences written into the show, cinematographer William Rexer (Hunters, Halston), who lenses all seven episodes, gives each story a defined texture, determined in large part by the specificity of the setting. So, from a basement crowded with technical gizmos and appendages that Leah works with to the light-drenched beach (the only time the show steps out in the open) on which Stuart and Otto wrestle with each other's emotions, Solos delivers a diverse visual palette.
Solos emphasizes human intimacy in various ways (stinky farts, handshakes, a first kiss, teenage and extra-marital crushes, et al) and harks back to brighter times. One episode closes with John Denver's ‘Back Home Again', another with David Bowie's ‘Space Oddity'. One segment uses Mozart's 40th Symphony as a background motif, and in another, a character likens the sound of the ocean waves to Beethoven's 6th Symphony and also evokes a song each by Elvis Presley and Stevie Wonder.
And in the opening episode of Solos, Anne Hathaway's Leah gets a word in edgewise about time travel being “such a f*****g boys' club”. We get exactly one female-led entry in the canon – 13 Going on 30, she rues. It is only fair that five of the stories in Solos are fronted by women.
Encapsulating a shared global yearning, the show ends with a warm hug between two characters, an act that had seemed impossible at the start of the show.
Solos is a testament to the times we are trapped in. It has the potential to be timeless, too. Unmissable.