Welcome to Up Next, a recurring column keeping an eye on what’s new in TV. This week, TV critic Valerie Ettenhofer checks in with a review of Full Circle, a new Max series from Steven Soderbergh.
In Steven Soderbergh’s new Max series Full Circle, audiences are shown the namesake for the show early on. In the first episode, a ritualistic chalk circle is drawn on the ground of a public park where a kidnapping is set to take place. It’s a plea for balance in the cultural language of a religion the show only seems concerned with insofar as it lends the crime thriller a sense of visual drama. At the same time, a crime boss (CCH Pounder) anxiously builds her own circle out of rice, piling the substance on her desk with a tremendous amount of focus.
These might be the circles we see, but the show is also concerned with the type of circle that’s too vast and philosophical to take in with the untrained eye, a cycle of exploitation and violence and white American greed that writer Ed Solomon tries his darndest to reveal slowly over the six-episode series. It doesn’t entirely work. Full Circle is interesting but muddled and too often absurd, with an obvious thesis statement that’s broad but not particularly deep.
The show starts off strong, though. The kidnapping plot involves the child of an affluent couple played with a subtly unlikeable edge by Claire Danes and Timothy Olyphant. The plan, initially, is for the crew of Guyanese crime lord Savitri Mahabir (Pounder) – including her nephew Aked (Jharrel Jerome) and two recent immigrants whose status in the U.S. depends on their involvement – to nab the kid in a gesture that will hopefully put a stop to a supposed curse on Mahabir’s family and business. The idea is unusual but compelling, and for a while, as elements of the plan go awry in ludicrous but shocking ways, Full Circle is riveting television. But once the initial surprise of the unique inciting incident wears off and several desperate characters are left scrambling for purchase, the show loses a bit of its own.
Full Circle quickly widens its scope to include the sister (Adia) of recent transplants Xavier (Sheyi Cole) and Louis (Gerald Jones), a mysterious second teen boy embroiled in the central crime, Mahabir’s right-hand-man (Phaldut Sharma), Dane’s character’s celebrity chef dad (Dennis Quaid), an insufferable U.S. Postal Inspector (Zazie Beetz) who seems to have walked straight off a TV Tropes page about quirky detectives, and her boss (Jim Gaffigan). It’s clear that the series is aiming for the type of sprawling, kaleidoscopic look at crime and institutional racism that was perfected years ago by The Wire, but one of the many reasons that show succeeded is thanks to the interiority it lent its large cast of characters. In Full Circle, characters are mostly doing little more than reacting at all times, so it’s tough to get a strong sense of who they all are outside this one pressure cooker situation.
The talented cast is also employed to varying levels of success. Pounder is a powerhouse performer who’s a welcome addition to any cast list, but it’s tough to reconcile her character’s no-nonsense leadership with some naive decisions that she seems to make solely to move the plot along. Olyphant, Danes, and Quaid play characters who are squirrely and off-putting by design, but Full Circle doesn’t even try to penetrate their veneer of wealth long enough to ingratiate them before it flips the script and reveals their secrets. Beetz and Jerome, two world-class actors, also feel underused here. The show’s clear standout is Adia, who follows up her on-screen debut in the short-lived horror series The Midnight Club with her turn here as a scared, empathetic young woman who steps up again and again as the world she knows is continually upended. Adia’s character delivers a heart-rending level of emotional depth that the show could’ve used more of across the board.
Soderbergh fans will still appreciate some of the filmmaker’s directorial flourishes, but Full Circle also includes a few visual misfires, like distracting low-angle shaky-cam shots and scenes with muddy-looking lighting. At its best, the show’s cinematography is kinetic, capturing the sense of urgency underlying the central premise. At its worst, the show has a sense of visual disorganization that, while disappointing, feels about right for its half-baked plot.
That middling plot ends up mattering a whole hell of a lot in Full Circle, as it ends with a bit of narrative punctuation that’s meant to tie a bow on an unorthodox moral tale but instead feels like a too-obvious re-assertion of a twist most audience members would’ve fully understood hours ago. Full Circle has the lofty goal of revealing the griminess and far-flung repercussions of white-collar crime, but it draws its shape too crudely to get the job done. Though solid performances elevate the material, it’s a rare misfire from Soderbergh.
Full Circle is streaming on Max as of July 13th. Watch the series trailer here.