It’s not hard to see why a story about a U.S. at war with itself might have seemed especially piquant to producers over the past several years. And, indeed, “DMZ,” HBO Max’s new limited series based on a comic serial, feels capital-R Relevant, as if trying to fit in a civics textbook’s worth of ideas about who we are and what citizenship means into four episodes’ worth of action.
It’s not always seamless. Indeed, the pivots between different areas of “DMZ’s” universe often land thuddingly. We’re following Rosario Dawson’s Alma Ortega, who lost track of her son during a rapid evacuation of New York City as civil war began; some eight years later, she’s broken into what is now the wilds of Manhattan, abandoned by authorities and governed by warlords, in order to find him. Along the way, she finds herself colliding with the two major political figures — kingpins of Harlem (Benjamin Bratt) and of Chinatown (Hoon Lee) — who, wouldn’t you know it, are about to stand for democratic election to determine whose cabal will hold sway over the island.
“DMZ” can feel overstuffed, and as if it’s fighting to wrench depth out of its source material. There’s vastly more incident than there is real danger in this world — the fact of the nation having gone through a second civil war feels marginal at best to the story, one that keeps hopping from character to character but avoiding dwelling on the verve and danger of its situation. “DMZ” devolves fairly rapidly into a Dawson-Bratt acting duet over shared backstory, which, though well-performed, makes only sputteringly occasional comment on their world. (The times we learn about what things are like in the DMZ is when someone announces their feelings about their situation, effectively to camera.) They’re living through extraordinary circumstances, and, although it could perhaps be said that life goes on despite it all, there’s little about the world of “DMZ” that feels special, or like the result of a thought-through vision. Indeed, the show’s politics are, in the end, fairly simplistic: Why bother to stage an election in what is, we’re told, a fallen world, if the two candidates have nothing interesting to say on the stump?
One craves the texture and insight that executive producer Ava DuVernay — who produces with showrunner Roberto Patino, and also directs the first episode before Ernest Dickerson helms the next three — brought to “When They See Us.” In her limited series, drawn from true events around the wrongful conviction of five boys, New York City felt like an entire world, with pleasures and dangers around every corner. Here — though individual shots or character beats compel — there’s far too little cohesion, no sense of where we are. Where one might expect the tools of fantasy to liberate DuVernay’s vision, they’ve perversely penned it in, giving us a world where the worst has happened and everyone seems, well, fine. The urgency of “DMZ” stops at its logline.
“DMZ” launches Thursday, March 17, on HBO Max.