Feud: Capote vs. the Swans begins, fittingly, with Truman Capote observing a flock of swans. Not the high-society women he referred to as his graceful birds, but actual swans gliding across a lake under a gray sky. Truman (Tom Hollander) stands near the water, cigarette in his hand and remorse on his face. The cigarette is familiar, but remorse was once anathema to the literary superstar's plucky persona. His swans — the women, that is — are gone, having ostracized him for slights they deem unforgivable. All he has left are reminders of what was, the party that now exists only in Truman's memory.
This visual metaphor is as unsubtle as they come, but it effectively epitomizes the new Feud season. The scene that follows it rewinds from 1984 to 1968. The colors brighten, and Truman dashes about with a sense of purpose clearly absent from his later years. He is seen rushing to the aid of his closest friend, the beautiful socialite Babe Paley (Naomi Watts), who has summoned Truman to her Manhattan high-rise so she can flog her philandering husband (Treat Williams). Even, or especially, in the face of his confidant's heartache, Truman's bliss is palpable — the bliss of being wanted.
Like the first installment of the dishy FX anthology series created by Ryan Murphy, which chronicled Bette Davis and Joan Crawford's on-and-off Hollywood rivalry, Capote vs. the Swans is a relationship digest. The fallout drives the feud. Before that, Truman and his clique seemed shatterproof. They vacationed together, attended ritzy galas, and plied one another with gossip and booze during lunches at the chic restaurant La Côte Basque. Then, in late 1975, fearing the creative dry spell that had set in once Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood made him a literary god, Truman did the unthinkable: He used their chatter as source material. A sensationalistic short story published in Esquire magazine portrayed the woman, however thinly veiled, as petty and superficial. Their secrets were laid bare, and they were livid. Truman got the boot. As the show tells it, he never recovered. By the time he's staring at those birds, Truman is on the cusp of succumbing to alcoholism.
Murphy, who handed Feud's reins to writer Jon Robin Baitz (Brothers & Sisters) and director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), had ample proof of Truman's decline. Capote vs. the Swans is adapted from Laurence Leamer's book Capote's Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era, one of several accounts that chronicle its subject's rise and fall. There are also two biographies, a documentary, a bestselling novel, a score of Vanity Fair articles, and two narratively identical movies from the mid-2000s (Infamous and the Oscar-winning Capote). In short, American popular culture seems more fascinated than ever by this excruciatingly public celebrity downfall. It's a wonder there's anything left to say about the saga.
Or is there? Sauntering back and forth across the '60s, '70s, and early '80s, Feud starts at a sprightly clip. The impish wit and tangy poise that made Truman something of a self-caricature are also what won him admirers, and the show takes an effervescent approach to the good ol' days when he ruled over his bosom buddies. Rolling around in this specific corner of midcentury New York prestige, a fantasy to all but a select few, carries the requisite intrigue. It's catty and glamorous and brisk, even as something somber, and perhaps sinister, lurks beneath the performative gloss. When Feud's focus shifts to Truman's ostracization, the show becomes both poignantly sad and frustratingly repetitive.
Truman, Baitz's scripts argue, was as defenseless as the women who admired him, having christened himself a cosmopolitan peacock to escape the anguish of his Southern childhood, including a borderline-abusive mother. All the vodka in the world couldn't cure him of the isolation the swans' rebuke triggered. Watching a great talent wreck himself physically and emotionally, becoming at once a villain and a scapegoat, gives Feud a tragic dimension. His closest friends — Babe, fashionable Slim Keith (Diane Lane), oft-photographed C.Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny), sharp-tongued Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart) — carry on without him, but they, too, are haunted by loss. How everyone processes the rupture plays out again and again through the season's timeline, a record broken almost beyond repair. A few scenes in the back half even feel oddly duplicated. The ideas in Episode 7 were already established by Episode 2.
Feud is a victim of TV bloat. Six episodes could have tightened the focus without losing the show's psychological weight, but eight makes it indulgent. It's a disservice to the gifted performances, particularly those of Hollander, Watts, and Flockhart. Hollander successfully escapes the long shadow cast by Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose tour de force in Capote redefined his career. Both actors portray Truman as a flagrant narcissist, but because Feud more directly examines the writer's woes, Hollander can braid vampirism with vulnerability. And Watts is note-perfect as Truman's favored ally. Her warm delivery envelops every scene she's in, making it immediately clear why her vacancy in Truman's life is so shattering.
The show does find a few novel diversions along the way. Van Sant shoots Truman's storied Black and White Ball, the star-studded blowout he threw in 1966 to celebrate In Cold Blood's success, like a documentary made by the Maysles brothers, who directed Gray Gardens and Gimme Shelter. Another episode imagines a long pep talk that James Baldwin (Chris Chalk) gave a down-and-out Truman. And the costumes, designed by frequent Murphy collaborator Lou Eyrich, are as resplendent as one would expect. Feud doesn't overcome its lack of restraint, but it has enough fluttery touches to soar.
Premieres: Wednesday, Jan. 31 at 10/9c on FX, with weekly episodes debuting on Hulu the morning after they air
Who's in it: Tom Hollander, Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Calista Flockhart, Chloë Sevigny, Demi Moore, Molly Ringwald, Treat Williams, Russel Tovey
Who's behind it: Ryan Murphy (creator), Jon Robin Baitz (writer), Gus Van Sant (director)
For fans of: Juicy literary gossip and glamorous New York chronicles
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 8