Producer Ryan Murphy has developed a habit of diluting his best works by seeking to franchise them. So as with “American Crime Story,” “Feud: Bette and Joan” begets the conceptually strained “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans,” a spectacularly cast ode to New York elegance and style of the past that hinges, for better and frequently worse, on the self-destructiveness of author Truman Capote.
The promotion might focus on the society women who the eccentric author courted, but the linchpin of it all remains Capote, played previously by an Oscar-winning Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”) and Toby Jones (“Infamous”) in 2005 and 2006, respectively.
Here, the eccentric raconteur is unerringly brought to life by Tom Hollander (recently one of “the gays,” as Jennifer Coolidge’s character put it, in “The White Lotus”) with all his tics and excesses intact. As good as Hollander is, the structure periodically staggers under an eight-part narrative that dizzyingly flits around in time and indulges in flights of fancy like having Capote commune with his dead mother (Jessica Lange, by now a mainstay of Murphy’s repertory company).
Having established himself as the life of every party and a source of delicious gossip, Capote ingratiated himself to the group, which rewarded him with their friendship and patronage. All that abruptly fizzled, however, when the writer – often blocked after his breakthrough with “In Cold Blood” – published an excerpt in Esquire of a planned book, “Answered Prayers,” offering a thinly veiled fictionalized takedown of their glamorous lives.
As for the New York elite that Capote wooed and wowed, the ladies who lavishly lunch consist of Babe Paley (Naomi Watts), the wife of CBS patriarch William S. Paley (Treat Williams, in one of his final roles), who cheats on her constantly; Slim Keith (Diane Lane), C.Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny) and Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart), the glamorous sister of Jackie Kennedy.
The gaudy cast also includes smaller roles for Molly Ringwald as Joanne Carson, one of Johnny Carson’s spouses, and a comforting resource to Capote once “the swans” turn on him; and Demi Moore as Ann Woodward, who engages in a separate feud with him.
Written by Jon Robin Baitz (“Brothers & Sisters”) and directed by, among others, Gus Van Sant (“Milk”), “Feud” again impeccably captures the period, while peppering the episodes with Capote’s rapier wit, speaking lines like “I was alone and surrounded by people, the worst sort of loneliness there is” and “The appetites are insatiable, but the Swans are never full.”
Still, the episodes get bogged down by the repetitiveness of Capote’s excesses, from his bouts of drunkenness to verbally abusing those around him, including a boyfriend (Russell Tovey, featured, along with Joe Mantello, in Murphy’s “American Horror Story: NYC”) who responds with physical violence.
The result is another limited series where more gradually feels like less, exacerbated by the fact this “feud” is considerably messier than the animosity between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The second edition thus becomes most memorable for individual moments, from Capote’s uncomfortably drunken appearance on a talk show to his impaired behavior on the set of “Murder by Death.”
The shortcomings ultimately dilute an abundance of showy performances, with Watts’ Babe perhaps the most tragic and heartbreaking figure as someone who truly loved Capote and found it particularly hard to part with his company.
Capote has remained a source of fascination long after his death. Yet despite the kind of juicy material that has fostered high hopes for the project, “Capote vs. The Swans” isn’t quite an answer to that prayer.
“Feud: Capote vs. The Swans” premieres January 31 at 10 p.m. ET on FX and streams the next day on Hulu.
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