Back in 2017, when Ryan Murphy all but reigned supreme over cable, the television auteur brought Feud: Bette and Joan to our screens. A campy, cutting and colorful take on one of Hollywood’s most infamous rivalries, it featured standout performances from Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as Golden Age greats Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
With a near-infinite basis as an anthology series, Feud felt like a show Murphy would rinse, lather, and repeat a la American Horror Story or American Crime Story. Instead, though, the series took a five year hiatus, the second season shifted focus from the infamous (and too often portrayed) feud between Prince Charles and Princess Diana to that between Truman Capote and the socialites he worshiped, and Murphy moved from a writing and directing capacity to a solely producorial one. Now, so many changes later, Feud: Capote vs. The Swans is premiering, but the show leaves something to be desired.
Feud: Capote vs. The Swans follows the fallout of Capote’s unfinished but oft-discussed novel Answered Prayers, a story of excess and eccentricity in New York society that plastered the personal business of many of the city’s biggest names across the gossip columns. As a premise for Feud, it’s fantastic. In practice, the show fizzles across its eight episodes. Things kick off in the first episode, when Truman (Tom Hollander) sends a chapter to be published in Esquire magazine as a proof of concept (he’s horribly behind on his deadline and risks owing his publishers hundreds of thousands). That chapter, “La Cote Basque” (named for a restaurant on West 55th Street where the ladies would lunch, and published by Esquire in 1975), implicates a bevy of high society women in myriad embarrassments—or worse. Truman’s closest confidant, Babe Paley (Naomi Watts), has her husband’s mortifying infidelity revealed; Slim Keith (Diane Lane) is characterized as a serial divorcee; Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart) is inextricably linked with her much-resented, much more successful sister, Jackie O; and Ann Woodward (Demi Moore) gets accused of murdering her husband. A few come out unscathed, namely the Gibson Girl-esque C.Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny), but the women who make up the elite group known as “the swans” all agree that Truman committed a grievous wrong and must be cast out. So, by the end of episode one, the tables have already been turned several times over.
Suffice it to say, pacing is a problem in Feud. The show frequently jumps in time, making it hard to tell if the conflict is taking place days, months, or even years after the Esquire story. At the halfway mark of the series, the swans all start bemoaning how long Slim has kept her grudge against Truman—sorry, is this show not about a feud?—but this moment could feasibly take place any time between 1975 and 1978. The show dives in and out of non-linearity, making its timeline messy and the meat of the story difficult to connect to.
Aside from the titular feud, the series’ primary subplots revolve around Babe and Truman’s health: Babe is diagnosed with cancer, while Truman struggles with alcoholism and substance abuse. Both of these stories suffer similarly, with the characters’ storylines becoming oddly repetitive. Babe’s illness is revealed in the second episode, and she spends the remainder of the series intimating to her friends how little time she has left and how little energy she has to stay angry at Truman; we don’t see her get sicker or truly come to terms with her terminal illness until it’s too late. As for Truman, it is true that the man suffered terribly from addiction and could not break that cycle, but the series fails to portray his substance setbacks with any real gravity. Over and over, characters tell him he needs to stop drinking, and over and over, Truman says he will but ultimately doesn’t. The drama ends up feeling rote and detached.
All of this isn’t to say that the actors don’t make the proceedings special, of course. Murphy’s projects have a knack for bringing on big names and big talents, and Feud is no exception. The swans are played by stars, and their imperiousness can be felt through the screen. Diane Lane’s Slim Keith stands out as a favorite of the main four women who Truman entertains (and who entertain Truman, to a point). Slim Keith claims to have been the one who discovered Lauren Bacall and provided a blueprint for her character in To Have and Have Not, and Lane takes that inverse inspiration and runs with it. She’s incredibly fun to watch, as is (the unfortunately underused) Calista Flockhart. While Lee Radziwill was incredibly close to Truman in real life (he tried and failed to get her acting career started), the show portrays her as the most distant of the group. It’s a shame, since Flockhart’s withering glare and sharp tongue make for some great line deliveries. Sevigny sadly doesn’t make as much of an impact, with C.Z. functioning as a neutral in the story and mostly serving as the human telephone between Capote and the swans later on.
Watts, of course, does well as Babe Paley, the aggrieved wife of TV king Bill Paley, who’s played by the late Treat Williams. Their scenes together are great, whether it’s Babe’s facade of the perfect wife cracking or Bill frantically trying to piece his marriage back together before the inevitable. It’s a wonderful final performance from Williams, and Watts nails the put-together wife who’s falling apart inside.
As for the show’s namesake, Tom Hollander had a difficult task when he took on the role: not only did Truman Capote essentially present himself as a caricature of a caricature, but he’s been played to much acclaim before, with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman winning an Oscar for it in 2006. It’s no small thing, then, that Hollander inhabits Truman, making the voice, the tics, the drunkenness all feel not just believable, but real.
The starpower and talent on display make the show’s shortcomings all the more unfortunate, and before long it devolves into a mildly hokey melodrama—and not the fun kind. Jessica Lange appears as the ghost of Truman’s mother, haunting his every failure. An invented encounter between Truman and James Baldwin (Chris Chalk) plays like literary wish fulfillment. The last two episodes drip with a saccharine melancholy that rings false. For a series with so much potential, Feud: Capote vs. The Swans disappoints.