We all know the idiom, “A watched pot never boils.” And in the context of FX’s latest anthology, Feud: Capote vs. The Swans, time indeed feels sluggish while you’re waiting for something to happen. You know there are juicy stories to savor, but the narrative keeps on bubbling and at some point, you get tired of waiting for the tea to spill.
Capote Vs. The Swans comes seven years after Feud: Bette and Joan dished out striking details on the drama between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford surrounding the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. It also comes on the heels of a planned premise about the royals, Charles and Diana (later renamed Buckingham Palace), starring Matthew Goode and Rosamund Pike. That iteration of Feud was scrapped in 2018.
This is all to say there has been a lot of anticipation surrounding Feud: Capote vs. The Swans. On paper, it seemed worth the wait. Truman Capote is one of the most interesting figures in literary history. His penchant for finer things and high society conflicted with his need to write about the players within, making him the ultimate outsider with insider access.
As for the socialites Capote dubbed The Swans, they brim with intrigue. Babe Paley was married to the man who institutionalized CBS and built his social status with her dinners. Slim Keith was a fashion icon with more behind-the-scenes influence than she was ever credited for. Lee Radziwill was a former princess and the sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. C.Z. Guest inspired designers like Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren. And Ann Woodward was once dubbed “The Most Beautiful Girl in Radio.”
They were the original ladies who lunched or, to put it in more modern terms, they were the original Real Housewives. If they existed today, reality show cameras would follow them around as they launched skin care products or fashion lines. (Case in point: Radziwill’s daughter-in-law, Carol Radziwill, was a cast member on The Real Housewives of New York City for six seasons.)
Equally impressive as these subjects are the actors embodying them. Hair and makeup bring Tom Hollander closer to Capote’s unique look, but his mannerisms and vocal afflictions sell the role early on. Naomi Watts brings Paley to life with an easy elegance. Diane Lane is commanding as Keith. Calista Flockhart evokes another Housewife, Dorit Kemsley, as Radziwill. Chloë Sevigny is understated as Guest, and Demi Moore’s Woodward is downright tormented.
Onscreen, however, that impressive cast and epic material fail to make an impact due to a lagging story and multiple time jumps. As the title suggests, this series is meant to explore the relationship between Capote and his “Swans,” a title he gave them because they were constantly fighting for their status beneath the surface — much like a swan pedals furiously under the water to stay afloat. Sometimes, they drown themselves in the process.
The journey begins with an exploration of Paley and Capote’s bond in the first episode, with a memorable scene involving an affair. From there the episode flashes back to the pair’s first meeting, then forward to 1975: the year it all fell apart.
By that point, Capote had gained access to The Swans’ inner circle. But then an excerpt of his planned novel, Answered Prayers, published in Esquire. In La Côte Basque 1965 (named after the restaurant they lunched at), Capote wrote personal and gossipy stories about the women using thinly veiled pseudonyms.
They were devastated; Capote’s bestie, Paley, never spoke to him again. Some believe this, and not just Capote’s falling out with his childhood friend Harper Lee (who does not appear in the series) or his experience writing In Cold Blood, is what led to his downward spiral with addiction.
Yet the relationships are barely established in the pilot when the article transpires, setting up a murky timeline full of confusing jumps. This is a series that demands your full attention to know what’s going on and where it takes place, and even then it’s work to piece it all together. You find yourself reaching for your phone to provide further context.
That’s partially due to the lagging pace. These aren’t quick scenes, and the dialogue is full of long, inner reflections that can be hard to engage with. That slow pace further drags with instrumentals, which may be reflective of the mood but don’t necessarily elevate the conversations. As a result, many scenes fall flat.
There is also a lot of exposition that doesn’t say anything at all. The show fails to capture Capote’s relationship with the women, other than that foundational first episode with Paley. With no solid history or moments of affection to bolster the loss Capote felt following that article, the stakes are minimal. Did he only care about Paley? Why did these women care about him? By the time further episodes progress to dream sequences with fictionalized interpretations of reconciliation, there is no history proving these people impacted one another’s lives in such a meaningful way.
The bright spot comes in Episode 3, which is an exploration of Capote’s iconic Black and White Ball in 1966. The installment traces the story of the shindig through the eyes of documentary filmmakers the Maysles brothers. By having these cameras follow the women, the series examines their inner layers in a way the other episodes don’t. Those moments spark and you can’t help but want more of them.
The episode is also a wink to the way the Real Housewives franchise is shot, with confessionals and private moments splashed for the world to see. It’s clear these women care about how they present themselves, and what they want others to see is perfection and aspiration. There’s a palpable sense of seeking acceptance and belonging, and the fear of losing either. These Swans are in need of validation for their contributions, and Capote makes them feel seen. Little did they imagine he would one day overexpose them.
If only more episodes explored those themes. Instead, the show homes in on Capote’s downfall and leaves you wondering if this is really a story of a feud or of a man who made a bad decision that followed him for the rest of his life. Yes, the cameras capture The Swans and see how their lives continued without Capote, but there’s so much left on the table. If these were the original influencers, their influence is far from felt by the closing credits. Without researching who these women are on your own, you fail to really know them.
Perhaps that’s a symptom of so many men helming things behind the scenes: Showrunner Jon Robin Baitz, series director Gus Van Sant, or author Laurence Leamer, on whose book, Capote’s Women, the series is based.
Or perhaps it’s the result of having too many characters to follow in a meaningful way. Aside from Capote and The Swans, the series also introduces other important players in the author’s life. Molly Ringwald plays Joanne Carson, the one person who stuck with Capote until the end. Joe Mantello plays Jack Dunphy, Capote’s partner. Jessica Lange appears as Capote’s late mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, and Russell Tovey plays John O’Shea, Capote’s abusive boyfriend and one-time manager.
It all adds up to a project with so much potential that barely scratches the surface by the time it’s done. With Bette and Joan, Ryan Murphy gave us a series that delved into old Hollywood and the way society pits women against one another. In the end, it delivered a sense of loss and mourning for women and what they endured to succeed.
Feud: Capote vs. The Swans is a one-sided take that never goes that deep, at least not when it comes to The Swans. But at the very least, it may make you appreciate the slice of socialite life and female experience the Real Housewives captures in comparison.
Feud: Capote vs. The Swans premieres January 31 at 10:00 PM ET with two episodes on FX.
Amber Dowling is a Toronto-based freelancer, CCA member and former TCA president. Her work has appeared in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Metacritic, The Globe and Mail, Playback and more. Follow her on Instagram: @amber__dowling.