In this series’ first episode, a mother and daughter (Toni Collette and Bella Heathcote) are caught up in a public mass shooting, the denouement of which reveals Collette’s character Laura to have a surprising, unforeseen boldness. The attention Laura’s heroism receives threatens to upset a delicate balance, one that Heathcote’s Andy hasn’t even realized exists.
Soon enough, Andy, whose adult life has been in a state of suspended animation to care for the ailing Laura, is thrust into the world, ordered by Laura to leave their town, where they have kept a purposefully low profile existence, and go into hiding. A key tension of the series exists in the space between Andy’s desire to keep safe and her temptation to figure out from what, or from whom, she’s been protected her whole life.
Minkie Spiro, director of the entire series, keeps things brisk and intriguing at first, and the writing admirably avoids overexplaining. (Why were Laura and Andy caught up in a shooting? Because it got the plot moving, that’s why.) But the visceral charge of early episodes fades as lengthy flashbacks seem to pad episode running times. Episodes balloon in running time as the series runs on, with the pilot running a tight 44 minutes and the finale clocking in at over an hour. The audience feels the difference. And while a new Collette performance is an event — and while she effectively conjures the sense of lost potential and weariness that might come later in a life that’s been structured by a need to hide — the show often seems to be hiding its most effective onscreen asset, in favor of time spent in the past.
And that past likely worked better on the page (in the novel by Karin Slaughter, from which this series is adapted) than onscreen. I’m reticent to delve into spoilery detail about what set Laura on her path to small-town isolation, but suffice it to say that her life story intersects with power and privilege of the most unimaginable sort. This oddly removes some of the story’s gravity: This comes to feel like a series on which just about anything could have happened in the past, which saps the power of the very specific emotional journey Laura’s on in the present. In all, “Pieces of Her” is at its best when it allows itself to remain a puzzle: Putting it together, with endless expositional flashbacks schematically setting up what began as an intriguing and emotionally engaging story, removes the show’s charge.
“Pieces of Her” launches on Netflix Friday, March 4.