I spent a lot of FX’s new limited series Trust — which in its first season tackles J. Paul Getty III’s kidnapping and his incredibly rich grandfather’s response, while subsequent seasons will delve into other tales of families in crisis — wondering what the ideal length was to tell this particular story.
The kidnapping and all that unraveled thereafter was tucked into a little over two hours in the recent film All the Money in the World, which famously replaced Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer as Grandpa Getty five weeks before the movie’s planned release, after accusations of sexual harassment and assault against Spacey came to light. (Plummer received an Oscar nomination for his troubles.) Trust, meanwhile, is going to tell this story over a solid 10 episodes — and since the first three episodes FX sent to critics are all an hour long, it might really end up being 10 hours, before commercials are taken into consideration.
Frustratingly, the right length to tell this story is probably six hours or so: All the Money frequently felt truncated, its story too sprawling for any of its characters to really connect, only Plummer holding the story together; Trust, meanwhile, feels a little scattered and bulky, constantly distracted by whatever catches its fancy when it might be better off bearing down and focusing on a particular storyline.
There’s a lot to like in Trust, but it also highlights a growing frustration with this era of TV drama, where stories are often arbitrarily of a certain length because that’s what everybody decided they should be. There’s a great, truncated version of this story existing somewhere in between All the Money and Trust. It’s just not available in either version.
So let’s look at how Trust underlines some of what’s exciting about TV drama in 2018 and some of what’s enervating about it.
Good: Trust is frequently audacious in how it chooses to tell its story
The first three episodes of Trust are directed by Danny Boyle, the hyperkinetic stylist behind everything from Trainspotting to Slumdog Millionaire, who turned 127 Hours, the story of a man getting his arm wedged behind a rock, into a massive sound and light show. (I love 127 Hours and most of Boyle’s films.) The scripts for all 10 episodes are from Simon Beaufoy, a frequent Boyle collaborator who won an Oscar for his Slumdog script. (A necessary caveat: Boyle only directed the first three hours of Trust, and those are all FX sent out. Sometimes, that means nothing; other times, it means that the propulsive filmmaking a famous director brought to a series’ early hours is sorely lacking once less famous names step behind the camera.)
The involvement of Boyle and Beaufoy might lead viewers to anticipate some sort of over-the-top, hugely stylized romp through a story full of twisted and sordid bits, Beaufoy’s scripts reveling in the violence (physical, psychological, and otherwise) while Boyle’s camera forces you in, right up close. Instead, the two have come up with a unique way to tell this particular story. Every episode focuses on a different character wrapped up in the whole confounding mess, and subsequently, every episode turns into sort of a cover version of a great ’70s filmmaker.
The premiere, centered on J. Paul Getty himself (played with icy furor by Donald Sutherland), is almost like a riff on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather in places — the large, spacious manses in which bodies lie buried and secrets go hidden, as well as the focus on the thin line between crime and capitalism.
The second hour, in which Getty’s fixer, James Fletcher Chace (a magnificent Brendan Fraser), heads to Italy to try to make sense of a kidnapping he thinks might be staged, has some of the shaggy charm of Harold and Maude director Hal Ashby’s work, with occasional winks to the camera from Fraser and the kind of darkly comedic tone Ashby excelled at. And the third hour, focused on the kidnapped grandson (Harris Dickinson), features some of the dreamy, disconnected-from-time-and-space qualities of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni (especially his 1975 “displaced Westerner in another country” film The Passenger).
There are good bits in all three hours — especially in that second, which might be worth the price of the less good stuff in and of itself — and the series’ ability to shift the point-of-view character between episodes allows Boyle and Beaufoy to radically alter the way the story is told from episode to episode, which should (emphasis on “should”) be a great way to retell this particular story. Except...
Bad: Trust doesn’t always have the strongest narrative throughline
The upside of turning every episode of your TV show into a short film of its own is that viewers don’t quite know what to expect when they tune in that week. The downside is that the overarching plot of the entire season can become a little lost in the weeds, especially when all of those episodes threaten to cross the 60-minute mark (which should end up being closer to 90 minutes with commercials).
What’s tricky here is that you can see Beaufoy became really enamored of a lot of the biographical detail he found out about the Gettys, and our understanding of the characters is enriched by some stuff that should be superfluous, like, say, J. Paul Getty keeping a harem (and a surprising amount of consideration paid to how an elderly man can possibly expect to perform sexually in such a situation). But too much of it ends up detracting from whatever momentum the story can build up.
This is particularly true in the third hour, which darts dreamily between past and present, when J. Paul Getty III is in real trouble right now. There are too many scenes that feel like Beaufoy inviting the audience to click on a Wikipedia hyperlink and go to read about something else, and by the time the main story is rejoined, all momentum has been squandered.
To be clear, this might end up being a strength. I can see a version of this series that is less about the kidnapping than it is about the poisonous fruit of growing up Getty, and I suspect the series is headed there eventually. But in the early going, Trust’s tendency to dawdle leaves a sense that everything and nothing matters simultaneously.
Still, by the end of each of the three episodes FX sent out, I felt a little too full, like I really should have stopped watching 10 to 15 minutes ago. FX is known for being indulgent of its creators’ running times, and it surely was happy to let two Oscar-winning filmmakers indulge to their hearts’ content. But boy, would I love to see some 45-minute cuts of these episodes.
Magnificent: let the Brendan Fraser renaissance begin
By and large, the all-star cast in Trust is doing what you expect them to do. Hilary Swank (as J. Paul Getty III’s mother and J. Paul Getty’s former daughter-in-law, Gail Getty) is tough and flinty; Sutherland is a snake made of pure ice; and so on and so forth. They’re all terrific actors, but the show isn’t asking them to break out of roles you’ve seen them play before.
The same is technically also true of Fraser, who’s mostly playing the kind of ruggedly handsome, doltish good guy you’ve seen him play before. But Fraser has been out of the spotlight for so long (as detailed in this lovely GQ profile) and has so clearly passed into middle age — with a little paunch to go with it — that it’s thrilling to watch him pop up in a prestige cable drama playing a character who could feel two steps removed from his George of the Jungle (another character aware of his status as a character in a story), were it not for how elegantly Fraser wrestles Chace to the ground.
This is also the one place where the TV show clearly bests the movie, which cast Mark Wahlberg in the part. Wahlberg’s fine and all, but there’s nothing playful or unusual about him, where Fraser always seems like he might exit a scene and then invite the camera to follow him as he ambles off set and has a bagel at craft services.
When Trust follows Brendan Fraser, it finally feels slightly dangerous in the way it clearly wants to, but not because he’s doing anything sordid or debauched. No, it feels dangerous because you never know when he might heave the TV show he’s in over his shoulder and ride off into the sunset with it. All hail Brendan Fraser, the new king of television!
Trust debuts Sunday, March 26, at 10 pm Eastern on FX.