HBO’s latest limited series, “Mosaic,” bears a fitting title. Not only are viewers left to puzzle through and piece together the unforeseen murder of children’s book author Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone, “Total Recall”), but also to try and decipher what “Mosaic” even is — or better yet, what it wants to be. The series grapples between branding itself as a TV show, “an interactive app experience,” a more cinematic mystery or at times all of the above. This only goes to blur the (what should be) very clear line between poignant television and one of those predictable and cringey pieces of whodunit dinner theater. Nevertheless, I’ll give it this — as a narrative, “Mosaic” is at times much too tedious, but as an experience, it’s perplexing in all the right ways.
Originally released in the fall of 2017 as a choose-your-own-adventure style app, “Mosaic”’s recent adaptation into a Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven”) six-episode TV thriller explores both the moments leading up to and the dynamic aftermath of Olivia’s small-town murder. Switching between flashbacks from the night of the crime to the reopening of the investigation four years later, the core of “Mosaic” attempts to uncover the real killer and bring long-overdue justice to Olivia’s accused fiancé, Eric (Frederick Weller, “In Plain Sight”). Even though the viewer has no real capability of changing the outcome of the story in either the app or the series, a constant thread of engaging with varying perspectives and weighing the truth is woven throughout — enough to make you feel like a detective in the case.
To say the least, the first episode of the series is hard to grasp. Right from the get-go, the audience is privy to a whole slew of characters and personalities that have some sort of tie to Olivia. But without a Google search, just what that link is remains fuzzy. While leaving out any sort of formal introductions or anterior characterizations does heighten the drama and suspense of the mystery, deciphering who is who then becomes a tiring task. It isn’t until episodes three and four, where Olivia’s almost-sister-in-law, Petra (Jennifer Ferrin, “Hell on Wheels”), returns to town with a vengeance. With that, “Mosaic” proves its merit and prompts a full-out binge session to unearth how the murder actually went down.
It is for that reason that the ending of this mini-series felt particularly disorienting because — without giving too much away — there is a, shall I say, curious lack of traditional closure in the finale. In fact, I was left with such an unhealthy amount of questions regarding certain whereabouts and specifics that I (against previous discretion) felt the urge to turn to the app version of the exact same story to try my hand at some major sleuthing. While there are a few extra details in the app that were cut from the linear version, I still felt the purposeful level of dissatisfaction and confusion that Soderbergh so often intends in his work. Lucky for me, that void is one that can be filled by another Soderbergh-confirmed season of “Mosaic,” though this time anthology style with an all new storyline.
When thinking of aspects of “Mosaic” that stand out above the rest, the camerawork is the first to come to mind. The way in which there is obviously little editing or special effects adds on gives the series a very intimate, naturalistic tone. The handheld feel of the camerwork truly allows any outside viewer to sink themselves into the fictional world of Summit, Utah. It is fascinating to feel both like a fly on the wall and an intruder while watching the same piece of media.
The other internal element of “Mosaic” that beams with allure is the casting. Not only is Stone compelling and tenacious as Olivia, but her male counterparts share equal degrees of charisma. Frederick Weller is gritty and captivating in his scenes behind bars, and Garrett Hedlund (“Tron: Legacy”), as an aspiring artist and murder suspect Joel, fights his inner demons and overwhelming anxiety with honesty and refinement.
While it may be difficult to explain all the nuances of the plot here, you too will be sucked into the whirlwind that is “Mosaic” after a mere six-hour watch. Moving past the wandering start of the series and the cliché tropes that come along with every murder mystery, “Mosaic” presents itself as a sleek noir that sets a new standard of innovation for TV production.