Were one to reduce the heady, eclectic, ever-growing oeuvre of Steven Soderbergh to a single phrase, "follow the money" would do the trick. Has there ever been a filmmaker more preoccupied with the ways that money has seeped into every aspect of modern life, corrupting relationships and institutions alike? It's the gossamer that connects his characters, each caught in some larger financial web weaved across the big or the small screen. Regardless of genre or subject matter, his stories are all about transactions, about who's living large and who isn't.
Full Circle, the new limited series Soderbergh has directed for Max, is no exception. It's another sprawling dramatic tapestry, like Traffic or Contagion, that follows a robust ensemble of characters, tracking the parallel and sometimes perpendicular paths of their lives. How these people are really related is the central mystery of the story, a crime thriller that creeps gradually into the past, through revelations that shine a new light on the present. Of course, anyone with even a passing familiarity with Soderbergh's work might guess the nature of the secrets he buries here. All roads lead, once more, to a bank account.
Still, Soderbergh grabs us immediately. The opening scenes have a seductive aura of uncertainty, enhanced by the rhythmic repetitions of his editing. Back and forth he moves between two images, both pregnant with undisclosed meaning: a weathered billboard for a luxury community; and the face of a teenage boy in a photograph, ominously circled. "Nobody knows the big picture," someone says early into the series. For a while, we're eager to see it come together, piece by sordid piece.
The boy in the photo turns out to be Jared (Ethan Stoddard), son of wealthy Manhattan couple Sam (Claire Danes) and Derek (Timothy Olyphant). They have a culinary empire built on an investment from Sam's father, played by an unfortunately pony-tailed Dennis Quaid. Jared has a habit of losing his belongings, though we quickly learn they're actually being lifted by another boy, Nicky (Lucian Zanes), who harbors a private obsession with this "perfect" upper-crust family. There's a promising hint of seedy intrigue here, like something you might find in a movie by Atom Egoyan or Michael Haneke.
Simultaneously, Full Circle thrusts us into the much less comfortable circumstances of Xavier (Sheyi Cole) and Louis (Gerald Jones), teenagers from Guyana. The two have immigrated to Queens to work for a local kingpin, Savitri (CCH Pounder), plotting some kind of revenge for the death of a family member. The criminal activities of her operation have overlapped with an investigation by Harmony (Zazie Beetz), from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. She's the show's version of the prototypically unorthodox detective, exasperating suspects and superiors alike with her dogged pursuit of a hunch.
Full Circle's most urgent, interesting episodes are its first two of six, when Soderbergh keeps us in the dark and guessing. How will these separate plotlines intersect? The inciting incident is a botched kidnapping and a case of mistaken identity, which briefly raises the possibility of a queasy moral dilemma: Most people would pay anything to save their own child, but how about someone else's, a seeming stranger's? There's also the peculiar specificity of the kidnappers' demands, which hinge on a rather uneven number and a very particular deadline.
The tension is temporary. Full Circle, after an intriguing start, sputters. The screenplay is by Ed Solomon, who wrote Soderbergh's recent No Sudden Move, which was similar in scope and theme (it too revolved around a hostage situation of sorts) but much leaner and meaner, a tight exercise in noir. Here, the like-minded material has been padded out across several hours of television. That leaves it both overcrowded and overextended: There are too many threads—or perhaps, too few that feel worthy of the full limited series runtime they've been afforded.
Soderbergh crosscuts between each with a characteristically sinewy grace. Some of the dilemmas are simply more engaging than others: It's easier to care about the desperate maneuvers of Xavier and Louis, cornered into a life of crime in a strange new country, than the workplace politics of a law-enforcement agency. Unbalance is key to the project's class politics: Soderbergh, ever interested in American inequity, wants us to see how the problems of his characters are not created equal. But as far as interest goes, neither are the subplots.
True to its title, Full Circle brings everything around. Its twisty plot comes to involve bribes, infidelity, murder, and the impression of a looming curse. And yet the more we learn, the less the labored pursuit of these answers seems worth the time to uncover them. Too many of the actors get lost in the talky morass of incident and backstory. Viewers will cling to the exceptions: newcomers Cole and Jones, whose panic quickens the dual throb of the show's pulse; Danes, warming under the hot light of accusation and revelation; and Beetz, hounding persons of interest with casual insinuation and sparring with her boss, played by Jim Gaffigan, the latest in Soderbergh's stable of comedians cast fruitfully against type.
Maybe Soderbergh just brings too cool of a touch to material this melodramatic. As usual, he sees the game behind the game, the hidden capitalistic structures dictating his characters' fates. But that understanding sometimes mutes the emotions of their conflicts; in reaching for a larger point, he has a tendency to treat people like chess pieces to be glided over a board. He shoots Full Circle in different striking shades, a reminder of the Traffic tactic of color-coding each story within the story. But as usual, one color shines brightest. The only tint that matters is green.
A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.