Tragedy is one of the oldest genres of stories, and throughout the centuries we’ve been given new and varied ideas for tragic tales. They are one of the fundamental storytelling setups because no matter what the year is or where in the world you are, everyone can relate to tragedy. Even with many people in low spirits as they are right now, many can find comfort in a well-executed tragedy, but that sort of balancing act is easier said than done. Enter HBO’s newest show, I Know This Much Is True. Based on the critically acclaimed 1998 book of the same name, this limited series comes to us from director Derek Cianfrance, known for his works like Blue Valentine and The Light Between Oceans. The themes of this series heavily focus on tragedy and loss, but can they pull off a dramatic and extremely tragic setup without stumbling? Let’s see what we were given.
I Know This Much Is True is centered around Dominick Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo) and Thomas Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo again!), two identical twins that grew up dealing with various hardships. Thomas struggles with schizophrenia and paranoia from a young age, and being born in the 1950’s, he also deals with a society much less empathetic to his differences. But the story more closely follows Dominick, who spends most of his life taking care of his brother when others refuse to accommodate him. The time in this series skips around quite a bit, as Dominick recounts an unknown biological father, an abusive stepfather, failed romantic relationships, cancer, family deaths, and plenty more. The series actually opens with a culmination of these events, as Thomas’ mental illness has gotten worse and lead to him going to a library to cut off his own arm because he thinks that he needs to make a sacrifice to God to end war. This gets him placed in a high-security mental institute, and Dominick fights to get him out since he promised his mother that he would look after him. He receives help from a no-nonsense social worker (Rosie O’Donnell) and a therapist (Archie Panjabi) that he tells quite a few stories to that show the audience how things got to be where they were in the opening scene. We see many side stories, both in the brothers’ childhood as well as their not-so-distant past, that put things into perspective and slowly pieces the puzzle together.
The biggest issue with I Know This Much To Be True is a tricky one for a tragedy: it often feels far too outlandishly tragic to be genuine at points. That’s not to say a story centered on angst is bad; in fact, I personally love a well-balanced tragedy. But the trick to making it work is balancing it with something else to pull the audience back when everything feels hopeless. There’s plenty of ways to do this, all depending on how you’d like to approach it. You could sprinkle in a glimmer of hope in between doses of pain, or use dark humor to balance out the sadness and make the audience laugh even if they feel sad. Plenty of famous musicals are extremely tragic, but still manage to pull in audiences with musical numbers that can present tragic themes and ideas in a way that still hurts, but in a bittersweet way rather than an endless-tunnel-of-despair-with-no-escape sort of way. The issue of this series is that there is no counterbalance to the pain. It just throws sad event after sad event at you, building the tragic nature of the show higher and higher until it feels like a soul-sucking chore to watch and almost ridiculous in how angsty it is. These characters truly cannot have anything good at all, because it will be immediately squashed in a wildly melodramatic way. The release date certainly hasn’t done it any favors though, so audiences may look back at it with better reception in the future. If this sort of thing doesn’t bother you, then you’ll probably have a great watching experience, because beyond that, there aren’t very many other issues at all.
While I can see some audiences being turned off by the extremely tragic nature of this show, many people will really enjoy its other qualities. Most specifically, Mark Ruffalo’s acting, because he absolutely killed it here. He was so good at differentiating between the twins that I didn’t even realize he was playing both of them at first. And I’m not just talking about physically, but they are completely different in how they speak and carry themselves and interact in regular scenes. You could never confuse one for the other, even if they were standing with their backs to the camera silently. It’s really nice to see Mark Ruffalo in an acting-heavy role, since he’s hot off his success in the Marvel movies where half the time he’s a green giant with pretty simple dialogue. While he does great in films like that, he definitely has much more room to show off his range here and impresses in practically every scene. Mark Ruffalo fans and fans of the art of acting in general will not want to miss out on these scenes.
In the end, I Know This Much Is True is an adaptation that takes chances, and though some pay off and others do not, it does have factors that will really appeal to some audiences. The other actors in the series all work well off of each other, but it’s obvious that this is Ruffalo’s show and they’re here to provide exceptional support. Though the time jumping can be a bit confusing initially, it does even out to have a great pace that reveals plot details with an eye for timing. Cinematography and shot composition is also a priority, leading to well-framed scenes that are conscious of what mood they’re trying to convey (like keeping things more cramped in scenes within the mental institution). The good thing about a show like this is that just by reading a description like this, you’ll probably be able to decide if this sort of show would intrigue or disinterest you. There’s good and bad elements to this mixed bag, but to one person the good may stand out as fantastic while the bad is easily forgivable, or vice versa. If this limited series sounds like it may interest you and you don’t mind a large dosage of tragic events, give it a watch on HBO and decide for yourself if this show is truly great.