A compelling monologue — as in a monologue that compels you to truly listen without interruption or distraction — is one of the trickiest high-wire writing acts there is. Giving a monologue shape and depth requires skill and a fine-tuned ear for the way a character talks and thinks. Making sure it has its own arc of a beginning, middle and end is crucial, and much harder to pull off than it seems. And there are real reasons why monologues that extend beyond a page or two tend to belong more to the stage than the screen. Monologues are inherently melodramatic to the point that they can strain credulity, giving them a theatrical bent that often feels more at home in a literal theater than inside a filmed story.
“Solos,” Amazon Prime’s starry new anthology series from creator Dan Weil, pushes the conceit of a monologue past its limit in 7 self-consciously staged chapters. Most feature a single performer, though a few get scene partners in the forms of an advanced AI bot in the vein of an Alexa, a mysteriously aging child or, in the case of Dan Stevens in the finale, Morgan Freeman. The series allows eight talented performers to play in a near future with advancing technology (insert “Black Mirror” reference here), where they’re tasked with delivering monologues that range from decent to extremely clunky.
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The first two episodes, both written by Weil, feature Anne Hathaway and Anthony Mackie talking to versions of themselves about the existential dread and exhaustion inspired by chronic illnesses. They each have their own sci-fi conceits, but both share enough of the same DNA and predictable structure that they end up feeling extremely similar. The choice to put these chapters back to back within the season seems a strange one until you watch the third episode, which features Helen Mirren hurtling through space as a painfully shy woman with an unexpected connection to a previous story. Mirren’s episode is also written by Weil, and once again depends on the same motifs, peaks and valleys as the previous two. (No matter the monologue, there will always be earnest crying.) But it also has a different director in Sam Taylor-Johnson and a more nuanced performance at its center, as Mirren finds more compelling contours in Weil’s otherwise predictable script.
From there, the series takes a couple more memorable turns. Uzo Aduba stars in a pivotal episode as a woman terrified to leave her impeccably designed safe house, where she retreated after a pandemic kept everyone locked inside. (Yes, “Solos” is a solidly pandemic-era production.) Constance Wu brings an eerie waiting room to roaring life as a seemingly carefree woman in terrible, visceral pain. Nicole Beharie gets the most atypical showcase in an episode from writer Stacy Osei-Kuffour (“Watchmen”) that veers more towards horror than any other.
The final episode, starring Stevens and Freeman, attempts to bring the series’ technological reality together by revealing a bittersweet link between all the stories. Here, “Solos” tries hard to say something deep and profound about the essence of memory, which each of its characters has grappled with to melancholy ends. But the writing isn’t quite sharp enough to make its point, whatever that is. All it really tells us is that it life is probably better when you’re not alone — a thesis “Solos” inadvertently proves by stranding all its characters, alone.
“Solos” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
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