Relationships and all of their messiness is an inherently interesting topic. It’s why we read tabloids or gossip about drama in our personal lives. Exploring relationships and the way that humans interact with one another intimately is one of my favorite settings for fiction, and I’ll admit that I’m more interested in messy, humanistic dramas that have the potential to make me cry than most people. So it’s no surprise that I was extremely intrigued by the plot of HBO’s new miniseries Scenes from a Marriage.
The 5-episode series is based on a ‘70s Swedish drama of the same name, and follows an almost identical plot to that of the original. When confronted by a huge life decision, a couple (played here by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain) must evaluate how their own individual needs affect the status of their partnership over time. The slow, heavy burn of the dissolution of a marriage draws comparisons to more recent relationship dramas like Marriage Story and Blue Valentine as two-handers that focus on small details of lives unraveling, and Scenes from a Marriage matches that somber tone.
Mira (Chastain) and Jonathan (Isaac) open the series in an at-home interview about their relationship with a local psychology graduate student interested in the ways that gender roles influence success in a marriage—a scene that mirrors the earlier version. Right away their answers seem dodgy and uncertain and overly academic, and are accompanied by facial expressions that reveal much more than their words. It’s no surprise that the marriage falls apart shortly thereafter, but without seeing the solid foundation that it was built on, it’s hard as an audience to feel as invested in the demise.
The original Swedish iteration was helmed by Ingmar Bergman and focused on a white, heterosexual couple navigating conversations that weren’t typically dissected to such a degree on national television. It was revolutionary in its own right for the time, showcasing a marriage with a female primary breadwinner and candid dialogue about happiness and love.
You’d think, then, that the 2021 version would update the premise to reflect the more diverse world we live in and the various types of romantic relationships that one can engage in, but instead writer and director Hagai Levi chooses to lean into the exact same story without even revising many of the beats. There are conversations about kids, affairs, and money that color the central relationship, but none of it feels particularly special or unique enough to warrant a remake. To tie the central themes back to external factors like job disparities, religion or—worst of all—capitalism makes it feel rigid and unsympathetic. It’s the minutiae of relationships that make them such great fodder for television, and the successful ones mine unspoken moments for hesitations. We barely see that play out within Scenes from a Marriage.
Levi also chooses to frame each episode with an opening that follows the actors to set, the camera following them as the mask-donned crew around them situates their props just-so before the director calls action. The episode rolls without a director ever calling “cut,” and the whole thing is forgotten until the next episode begins. The jarring choice apparently wants to remind you that this is indeed fiction, but it’s purely stylistic without much payoff; it promises a reveal that never comes.
It’s hard not to contrast this series with the third season of Master of None from earlier this year, which also owes much of its style and character beats to Bergman. But where Scenes from a Marriage treads familiar ground, Master of None expanded into different territory: the Netflix drama focuses on a lesbian couple dissecting their marriage and the nuances that accompany a queer separation and divorce. While not necessarily revolutionary, Master of None at least took the framework and opened the story up to marginalized characters, and interrogated the similarities and differences to that of a heterosexual couple.
If Scenes from a Marriage has a saving grace, it’s the dynamic duo of Chastain and Isaac who are far and away the best part of this project. Their easy chemistry is apparent when they’re yelling at each other, lying in bed with each other after a fight, or awkwardly existing in the same space for the sake of their daughter. It’s a master class that deserves recognition, and both actors reach the depth required to sell the dialogue. I just wish the material was worthy of their talents.
Scenes from a Marriage premieres Sunday, September 12 on HBO.
Radhika Menon is a pop culture-obsessed writer and filmmaker living in New York City. Her work has appeared in NY Post’s Decider, Teen Vogue, and will be featured in Brown Girl Magazine‘s first ever print anthology. She is a proud alumna of the University of Michigan and thinks she’s funny on Twitter.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.