Television

Amazon’s star-studded science fiction series Solos takes on the monologue but doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of its form. By Sarah Krasnostein.

Solos

Helen Mirren as Peg in a scene from episode three of the Amazon Prime series Solos.
Credit: Amazon Prime

“The first clear indication that it was the people who wrote and read science fiction who lived in the real world, and everyone else who lived in a fantasy, came on August 6, 1945, when the world discovered that an atomic bomb had been exploded over Hiroshima,” Isaac Asimov wrote in the 1980 World Book Year Book. Dying in 1992 of HIV, while we were still in the analog world, he wouldn’t live to see his claim proved with startling frequency as we entered the digital age.

In the spirit of dystopian anthology series such as Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone, Solos, Amazon Prime’s newest science-fiction offering, explores the most terrifying premise of all: that the world will change but we won’t. Across seven episodes, the characters advance time travel, space travel and human cloning. They eliminate uncertainty and traumatic memories. But they are as trapped in their vulnerability as anyone in the Dark Ages, or now. As the saying has it: wherever you go, there you are.

Susan Sontag observed more than 55 years ago in her essay “The Imagination of Disaster” (1965) that the science fiction films of the previous decade indicated “a mass trauma exists” about the horror of Hiroshima and the real possibility of nuclear war. We are at the beginning of the beginning of reckoning with the mass traumas of Covid-19, and I’d say we haven’t truly started, given that reckoning requires a certain emotional distance.

“Ours is indeed an age of extremity,” Sontag wrote in 1965. “For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.”

Fantasy helps us cope with those twin spectres in two seemingly contradictory ways. First, through escapism. Second, by normalising the unbearable: immunising us through controlled exposure to the “unassimilable terrors” that infect our minds. This is what Solos – which comes in hot with big theatricality and big names (Morgan Freeman, Anne Hathaway, Uzo Aduba, Helen Mirren, Constance Wu) – sort of does. But if anything of lasting value can be said about the psychic wounding caused by the terrors of mass death, instant isolation and the irrevocable, global loss of the familiar, it’s not being said by Solos.

Made with the production values of the company owned by the richest man on the planet – who, as I write this, has announced he’s about to shoot himself into space – Solos has a promising, Emmy-entitled gloss. It’s created by David Weil, the showrunner of Amazon’s Hunters, which I also wanted to like more than I did. Weil uses the full complement of award-winning actors at the service of a big swing. Each episode is essentially a single-scene monologue – think Alan Bennett’s captivating Talking Heads displaced into the near future and turned up to 11. This unusual form – which is really just the oldest form of storytelling – is a tightrope: the writing and the acting must be unerring. This is less because there’s nothing to distract from flaws – although that is true – and more because a monologue is an emotional dialogue with the viewer, and our trust can be broken only so many times.

At the start of each 30-minute episode, the voice of Morgan Freeman asks a Big Question – “If you travel to the future, can you escape your past?” or “Is the threat outside greater than the one within?” – before the story sprints with increasingly frantic emoting towards a Big Twist.

Aristotle lists pathos (an appeal to the emotions) as one of three modes of rhetorical persuasion, alongside logos (an appeal to reason) and ethos (which turns on the speaker’s credibility). The equilaterality of that triangle is misleading given the first principle of human action, art generally and science fiction specifically: fact does not move the world. It’s instructive that pathos literally means both “suffering” and “experience” and that those two words are sufficiently interchangeable to underlie the concept.

The power of pathos lies in its immediacy, its call to the dutifully responsive feelings that reside just under the surface as a result of the bruises and bounties of being alive for a particular measure of time on this planet. Whether it bends towards anger or sympathy, pathos can be mainlined. But empathy – the deeper, more connective evocation of feeling with – cannot. And this is where Solos is less than it could have been.

Critics have observed of Solos that 30 minutes is insufficient to allow the premises to play out. However, the original Twilight Zone episodes were 30 minutes and writers Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson masterfully navigated that constraint to show the unsayable while exploring the dark complexity that “lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge”.

It is true that pace is sometimes a problem – the ending in Constance Wu’s episode, for example, comes too abruptly. So too is structure – the call back at the start of Helen Mirren’s episode is laboured and unnecessary. But the main issue is tone, the emotional force of the writing: too often, it’s a firehose. Hathaway’s performance in particular could do with some Brechtian reserve but, as Anthony Mackie and Mirren demonstrate, even the best acting can’t make up for shortcomings in the script.

When the cast aren’t speaking, they are transcendent. Mackie thinking for one beat too long about how to urgently convey in mere words the gestalt of his young child. Realisation rippling Mirren’s brow as it dawns on her that self-worth is something one must grip with both hands or it will be pecked at until there is nothing left. Hathaway’s eyes, so dark they seem made of light-swallowing pigment, gazing only inwardly. Less – sparing lyricism, elision, white space – would have been more for each script; technique that respected the viewer’s ability to consider, and to make, connections for themselves.

Awareness of narrative form, Sontag observes elsewhere, invites the viewer’s reflection – not just about the content, but how it affects us and why.

I love the idea behind Solos. There is something holy in a monologue’s ability to submerge the audience in the subjective. That is the paradoxical power of the “I”, which is an aperture into the lives of Others; those spaces we enter voyeuristically only to be confronted by ourselves. The promise of Solos doesn’t lie just in each monologue but in the effect of replication – echoes and harmonies – across seven episodes. As we shelter in place, what better way to represent our alienation and its antidote than single notes strung together in a symphony?

“Ultimately, the greatest source of emotional power in art lies not in any particular subject matter, however passionate, however universal,” Sontag writes. “It lies in form.” While the themes and archetypal concerns – death, love, fear, guilt – are worthy, the speed and size and exaggerated heat of their communication leaves me, in the end, unmoved.

Although she passed away in 2004, Sontag lived long enough to see that – whether it’s the bomb or the climate crisis or any of our innumerable wars or domestic terrorism or plague or polio or AIDS or Covid-19 – ours has always been “an age of extremity”; that it’s less our timing and more our human failings that pin us between banality and terror. The best speculative series – and here I am thinking of those crystalline early tranches of The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror, Maniac and The Handmaid’s Tale – reveal that this terror is planetary in reach but human in scale. And that while it is incapable of elimination, it might be ameliorated by being faced boldly – to paraphrase Asimov – and together.

In the middle of Melbourne’s second lockdown in 2020, I walked through the city for the first time in months, unsettled by how it looked but more by its silence. I read how rats were deserting the shutdown city, how fox sightings had increased and, later, marvelled at those foxes with my own eyes. Sontag said that the trump card of end-of-the-world movies such as The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1962) “is that great scene with New York or London or Tokyo discovered empty, its entire population annihilated”. But there is another trump card: the movie “can be devoted to the fantasy of occupying the deserted metropolis and starting all over again, a world Robinson Crusoe”.

In our efforts to meaningfully grapple on screen with the traumas of Covid-19, I hope that shows to come will powerfully make the case, as one of Solos’ episodes tries to, for turning this ship around.

Solos is now showing on Amazon Prime.

 

Arts Diary

VISUAL ART European Masterpieces

GOMA, Brisbane, until October 17

MUSIC Festival of Voices

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Queensland Theatre, Brisbane, until July 10

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The Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, until June 26

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 26, 2021 as "Sole searching".

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Sarah Krasnostein is the author of The Trauma Cleaner and The Believer and is The Saturday Paper's television critic.