Busy bee director and producer of content for screens big and little Steven Soderbergh collaborates for a third time with writer Ed Solomon — following their 2021 period noir drama "No Sudden Move" and the 2018 experimental murder mystery "Mosaic" — for "Full Circle," a six-part social cum family cum crime drama that premiered Thursday on Max. It is fueled by coincidences, hidden connections that look like coincidences and the random acts of panicky people.
CCH Pounder plays Savitri Mahabir, a Guyanese racketeer in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens, New York, whose insurance office makes money knocking off the people it covers, then paying itself the benefits. Apart from what might strike one as an unsustainable business model, things have been going from bad to worse around her, to the extent that she feels she is under a curse — well, in fact, she is — and has determined that certain ritual actions are required to remove it and repair a "broken circle."
For reasons that will eventually become clear, if not exactly sensible, the supposed remedy is to kidnap Jared (Ethan Stoddard), the privileged son of Sam (Claire Danes) and Derek (Timothy Olyphant), and the grandson of Sam's father, Jeffrey (Dennis Quaid), a food media figure popularly known as Chef Jeff, who seems to be all brand and no substance. (Sam and Derek run his business.) Quaid plays this role not just with a ponytail but an intricately braided ponytail, and in a voice that sounds modeled on that of co-star Jim Gaffigan.
Gaffigan plays Manny Broward, from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which has been looking into Mahabir's dirty business. Zazie Beetz is agent Melody Harmony — a goofy name, and one chosen for its contradictory overtones, but something Mr. and Mrs. Harmony might conceivably name a child. A classic rule-breaking loose-cannon copper, agent Harmony is doggedly on the case, whether or not she is supposed to be.
The kidnapping incorporates several symbolic circles, including a ransom figure set at $314,159, because that's pi, and a drop-off in Washington Square Park, which has a big round fountain at its center. Mahabir's superstitious stubbornness flummoxes her more practical lieutenant, Garmen (Phaldut Sharma), and makes things more difficult for her already difficult nephew Aked (Jharrel Jerome, a world away from "I'm a Virgo"). Aked is also the fiance of Natalia (Adia), whose teenage brother Louis (Gerald Jones) and his friend Xavier (Sheyi Cole) have been imported by Mahabir from Guyana to assist with this and that bad thing around the place. America, they will learn, is not what they hoped.
Things go awry. There are mistakes on all sides. To begin with, it isn't Jared who is kidnapped but another teen, Nicky (Lucian Zanes), who has been mysteriously stalking Jared and making away with his belongings. There's a story there — Solomon isn't arbitrary in his construction, and leaves nothing unexplained.
Considering that his writing credits include "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," "It's Garry Shandling's Show" and "Men in Black," one might have expected something more in the way of humor. (A stray remark about lifting big bags of money "with your knees" jumped out for being so rare.) Perhaps he's atoning for some earlier lack of seriousness. And this is a serious miniseries, notwithstanding the manic, unhinged nature of Beetz's character, the all-around weirdness of Quaid's performance and the presence of professional comedian Gaffigan, who is amusing despite not having particularly amusing things to do or say, unless his clambering over a fence qualifies.
Like "No Sudden Move" and "Traffic," Soderbergh's much-praised (but less good) film remake of the British television miniseries "Traffik," "Full Circle" looks at white people and people of color, the privileged and the struggling classes, criminals and collateral damage. There is no direct correspondence drawn between color or status — or even criminality, depending on the crime — and moral fitness. As Woody Guthrie wrote, "Some will rob you with a six-gun/ And some with a fountain pen," and both sorts are present here. Indeed, most of these characters are guilty of something, be it violence, dishonesty ("What is it with your family and secrets?" an incredulous agent Harmony asks Derek), or a blithe disregard for the repercussions of their actions.
As a result, one's sympathy is reserved for the least powerful few. Other characters you would simply like to go away, such do they test your patience, though some will exhibit eleventh-hour selflessness or a hint of personal growth, as the series heads toward its heaping helping of closure, seasoned with a little irony.
Soderbergh is a dedicated filmmaker whose career has incorporated mainstream crowd-pleasing and niche artiness, sometimes in a single production. His style-forward approach worked well in the service of his bonkers Liberace biopic, "Behind the Candelabra," and the creepy-crawly period hospital series "The Knick." But here the "moviemaking" tends to get in the way of the reality Soderbergh also seems to want to portray; it's alienating, in the Brechtian sense, and perhaps not by intent. (Kudos, in any case to the location scouts and production designer April Lasky, who have fit people to place extraordinarily well.)
Some performances, even from actors whose talent is not in question — "star-studded" aptly describes the cast — suffer as well, feel artificial, performed, not lived. Conspicuous camera moves distract from rather than enhance the action, and a dour, foregrounded score adds an extra layer of weight. Despite its busyness, "Full Circle" can be hard going — a sort of eventful slog. This is somewhat alleviated in later episodes, as the director dials back the stylishness and lets his characters, who have filled out a little over time, quietly converse, like reasonable people. Admittedly, I have a liking for reasonable conversations.
How to watch: Max