Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
DirecTV’s marketing campaign calls its newest series, Full Circle, “La Ronde meets My Dinner With Andre,” because it’s a cycle of duets set at the same restaurant. Really it’s more like In Treatment meets Web Therapy, with the structural experimentation and serious tone of HBO’s great therapy series combined with the outsized personalities and writing of Showtime’s. The characters are blowhards who reveal themselves through their chattiness. The dialogue is heightened, as per usual when it comes to playwright, director, and first-time TV-series creator Neil LaBute. Every tête-à-tête is about determining who has the upper hand. Yes, this is another LaBute interrogation of power in relationships.
The format is a keeper, an absolute ouroboros of hostility. In one episode, Minka Kelly and Julian McMahon are a married couple meeting for dinner. He’s late, and she’s pissed, but claiming not to be. In the next scene, agent McMahon meets with comedian and client David Boreanaz. Then, Boreanaz meets the sister of a gay kid he has a connection to, and so on, until the snake comes back to bite Kelly. After a very In Treatment-esque title card, each episode breaks down into a prologue and three acts playing out practically in real-time. The staginess is riveting, everything distilling to these up-close-and-personal performances and the push-pull of conversation create a sense of immediacy. The title cards announcing the courses—appetizer, main course, dessert—however, thud like anvils. This is the part where the conflict is set up, this is the part where it explodes, and this is the delicious parting shot. Maybe season two can underline who ends up footing the bill.
In just three early episodes, the characters run a gamut of backgrounds and experiences, so this isn’t just a bunch of rich white people commiserating, although there is that, and it’s the best episode sent for review, “Jace And Chan’Dra.” That episode pits establishment stereotype Boreanaz—a walking, talking avatar for obnoxious wealthy white men insecure about their declining status—against Keke Palmer as Chan’Dra Stevens—a young, working-class black girl with both feet on the ground. By contrast, Kelly and McMahon are wealthy, yes, but in subservient roles, Kelly to her aggressive husband, and McMahon to his client, who is used to being the most powerful and famous guy in the room. It takes a very convoluted tragedy to place Boreanaz in a position of subordination, and even then, he can’t really deign to do so to any meaningful degree.
What’s really under the microscope in Full Circle is power. Take “Jace and Chan’Dra,” the premise for which is obvious by the time the series gets there. Palmer’s late—like McMahon in his episode with Kelly, “Bridgette & Stanley”—which puts Boreanaz on edge. She sets the terms of their meeting by making him wait for over an hour, and he has that grievance to lodge against her whenever he needs some moral superiority. Then there’s the way the two speak. He’s a motor mouth and a potty mouth, babbling to break the ice, not caring about the words coming out. He’s not used to having to consider how what he says might affect someone. She, on the other hand, is silent, waiting for the right moment to pull the trigger. She pounces on every little thing he says that can be reasonably construed to be offensive, and only once does an insult play like an honest accident. Because she doesn’t really have anything to lose, she’s completely honest and upfront, whereas he is a mealy-mouthed weasel. In the end she has one thing to ask him, and it comes down to whether he can face the consequences of his words or not. In a way that’s what every episode is about. Why do people say the things they do? Is it bluster in the heat of the moment, or do they stand by their words? What about when those words get turned against them?
There’s another dimension to the scene: Palmer is going to tweet this informal interview to her thousands of Twitter followers. Boreanaz isn’t even on Twitter, so there’ll be no defending himself on that platform, but he has plenty of others at his disposal, not to mention paid professionals protecting his image. In the other scenes, too, the smartphone is constantly there just waiting to buzz. In the middle of a fraught conversation, Kelly gets a call, and McMahon snatches her phone, suspecting an affair. Later he exits by having to take a call from Boreanaz. Several characters retreat to the bathroom to escape not only the conversation, but that whole, tense set of circumstances via their phones. There’s always a creeping, more important realm of social media lying in wait. And there’s power in that, too, in a platform, escape, distance, even the secret of one-sided conversation.
In three episodes, it’s hard to see much more beyond the quirks of human behavior and silent struggles for power that mark any serious drama with stakes, only here they’re under a spotlight on the main stage. The performances don’t always land, with Palmer being particularly flat in a pivotal role, though Kelly and McMahon turn a frustrating convention into a fascinating game of submission and domination signals. The biggest issue here is LaBute’s man-cave dialogue. For example, one guy brags, “Any one of these waitresses in here, or the waiters for that matter, I could fuck any one of them at any time if I wanted to and I paid them enough. That’s how this town works. Cash!” The chatterboxes may just be expressing insecurity, but at a certain point it’s no longer human. There’s an airlessness to Full Circle that vacuum-packs these performances but leaves little real life.
Created By: Neil LaBute
Starring: David Boreanaz, Minka Kelly, Kate Walsh, Billy Campbell, Tom Felton, Keke Palmer
Debuting: Wednesday, October 9 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern on DirecTV’s Audience channel and On Demand.
Format: Half-hour drama
Three episodes watched for review