[This is a review of the Falling Water series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
Based on its premise alone, one could understand why USA’s new mind-bending drama/thriller Falling Water could have been an easy sell to the network. Although the show’s concept is reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 sci-fi blockbuster Inception, the idea of “dream sharing” presented in the series’ pilot is still undeniably and inherently intriguing. But perhaps even more thought-provoking is the question quite literally posed to the audience via a voice over in the show’s first few minutes: What if we are all connected through our dreams?
During a pitch session, that’s the type of theoretical that is immediately followed by the exploding-mind gesture and its accompanying sound effect. It’s certainly a high-concept idea with plenty of narrative terrain to explore. And given that we all dream but can rarely find meaning in our subconscious experiences, it’s also an idea that audiences can relate to and will want to understand more fully. However, there are also a couple of major challenges with presenting a concept so lofty and ambitious: figuring out a way to realistically ground it, and providing a narrative target or end-point for the series to shoot for. Unfortunately, this is where Falling Water falls short (albeit, after one episode).
Co-executive produced by Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead), the series tackles its complex concept through the perspectives of three very different and unrelated characters, whose only commonality is that they seem to be experiencing small pieces of each other’s dreams. A mysterious phenomenon such as this is compelling on its own, in that it breeds more questions and intrigue. But even early on in a series, some of those questions require a quick and grounded explanation in order to continue to draw the viewer in beneath the concept’s shiny surface. Firstly, there needs to be a sense of how dream sharing is possible in the real world; and secondly, there must be a hint at why these three main characters are involved in order to develop any further interest in their individual stories and the overarching narrative. But by the end of the pilot, ‘Don’t Tell Bill’, viewers are left with only more mystery, which is cultivated by strange coincidences within the characters’ shared dreams.
While it’s true that a large part of the initial appeal here is based around the show’s core mysteries, it’s frustrating being introduced to such a potentially rich and imaginative world that seems just as distant and unknown from the beginning to the end of the show’s first episode. Sure, there are some interesting revelations about the main players, but they only add to the mystery. Tess (Lizzie Brocheré, American Horror Story: Asylum), a highly sought-after cultural trend setter, learns her dreams involving childbirth might have been more real than she initially thought. Meanwhile, financial security expert Burton (David Ajala, Jupiter Ascending) begins to uncover corruption within his own company, an investigation that leads to the suspect’s suicide. Finally, there is Taka (Will Yun Lee, The Wolverine), an NYPD detective who continues to find the word Topeka (as in the capital of Kansas, possibly) in evidence at his crime scenes.
All of these clues hint at a much larger connection, while the show does everything it can to keep information shrouded behind mystifying motifs within the larger dream the three characters seem to be sharing. To put this gripe another way, Falling Water is good at serving up a large helping of food for thought, but there are not enough morsels of substantial meat for the audience to sink its teeth into, thus giving that audience more reason to walk away from the table all together.
And when the premiere does try its hand at straight-faced exposition, it offers unoriginal, eye-roll-inducing genre tropes. This is most notably seen in Bill’s (Zak Orth, Revolution) explanation of how Tess can enter another person’s dream. Apparently, she is some sort of “chosen one” with abilities others doesn’t possess, or at least not at the same level of intensity. Of course, this reveal just brings more questions. Why is she special? How did she get these abilities? What is Bill really after by using her abilities? And so on.
And while it’s clear the show is preparing to give its audience small pieces to the larger puzzle each week, what’s most problematic about the series at this point is that, even after the pilot, there is little indication of what Falling Water is actually about. Is the show about three people discovering a government conspiracy through their shared dream and working together to stop it? Perhaps there’s another threat, such as a global pandemic or a shared enemy seeking some sort of control. We don’t expect answers to the series’ biggest questions yet, but we should at least know what the characters are striving for collectively and what’s really at stake here. Otherwise, it’s hard to really care about what happens each week. As of now, the antagonistic conflict needed to truly build tension and drama is missing. Let’s hope next week’s episode pulls back the veil on its mystery just a little bit more and begins to untangle its convoluted narrative threads.
Falling Water season 1 continues next Thursday with ‘Calling the Vastly Deep’ @10pm on USA.