On paper, an adaptation of Wally Lamb's I Know This Much Is True starring Mark Ruffalo as embittered twins sounds like a novel concept.
The reality is, unfortunately, much different.
When Lamb first arrived on the scene, I recall reading his debut book. I also remember that it prompted some discussion, but looking back, I cannot recall anything about it.
Still, if it sparked conversation, then that's a good start. It seems his other works have gone on to some acclaim, and I Know This Much Is True is lauded through reviews.
That's all I knew going into this series other than the basic concept focusing on two middle-aged brothers, one vastly different than the other. Mark Ruffalo plays Dominick Birdsey a brother who has been taking care of his slightly older, by one minute, twin, Thomas, most of their lives.
Thomas suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, and with that and their troubled upbringing, all the joy gets sucked out of their lives.
Introduced to the characters around age 40, Dominick tells the tale, often through voiceover, of growing up nearly identical but oh, so different.
There is nothing pretty about this adaptation, but from what I've gleaned about the novel after watching the series, while moving, it's incredibly depressing. So, that's true to the source material.
The problem here is that we are suffering worldwide right now, whether through illness or lockdown, and it makes watching others suffer almost unbearable.
Throughout the entire series, I can recall one time of sheer joy getting expressed, and even then, the moment was marred by someone commenting how lucky Thomas was to have Dominick to take care of him.
It's hard to imagine a life so hard even the bright moments are infused with the reality that this might be as good as it gets.
The cast is, of course, incredible. Mark Ruffalo doing double duty is good stuff, and he nails the performances. The physical transformation he underwent to play the two parts is itself miraculous, and there's never confusion between the two characters as they are as unique on the outside as they are on the inside.
Others on the cast include Kathryn Hahn, Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis, Imogen Poots, Rosie O'Donnell, and Archie Panjabi, and they all dig deep into their characters with their terrific performances.
As noted earlier in this review, quite a bit of the narrative is delivered via voiceover, and if there's anything less uninviting than a dour character utterly devoid of happiness, it's that same character droning on with unending exposition.
Flashbacks are important to I Know This Much Is True because they help to shape the actions of the present. There are equally good actors taking on the roles of young Dominick and Thomas throughout their lives, too.
But too many of those scenes play almost like a reenactment instead of actively contributing to the story.
Going back even further, as Dominick and Thomas grew up without knowledge of their extended family, and their roots are revealed very slowly. At the same time, viewers get glimpses into the history of twins in their family and why so much of their family history was hidden. Hint: It was unpleasant.
That might have been a surprise if hiding it had given Dominick and Thomas a better existence free of family burdens, but instead, it seems the patterns continued even though they had no knowledge of them.
It's through the past that we get a better feel for mental health problems that have plagued the family and eventually discover why the truth about their father was kept from Dominick and Thomas.
But so much of the revelatory information never gets time to flourish because it lands so late into the limited series.
The framing for the majority of I Know This Much Is True is central to a significant event crisis Thomas undergoes that lands him into protective custody.
An argument central to the plot is whether the kind of self-protection Thomas must suffer is as advantageous as those who inflict it might believe, as Dominick begins a determined fight to free his troubled brother as much for Thomas' fault as to alleviate his own guilt for not being similarly inflicted.
Women are in the minority in this production, not by the number of roles but by with screentime. Still, Hahn and O'Donnell, in particular, have small but mighty roles even if they’re a little underutilized.
Leo, Panjabi, Poots, and Lewis have less impact on the storyline, and each of their characters helps to bring home Dominick’s dour existence.
While I Know This Much is True is just a little too dark to enjoy, it’s not because of the production. It seems that the source material is accountable for that, so it’s hard to fault a series that does very well with an emotionally heavy story.
Still, as difficult as it is to get through it, part of me can’t help but wonder how it would have played if it had been a little longer, with fewer voiceovers and a bit more attention to some of the more optimistic segments of the story.
Rolling with punches is one thing, but the punches never letting up is another. After six episodes of emotional brutality, you’ll be aching for a little happiness.
I Know This Much is True premieres on HBO Sunday, May 10 at 9/8c.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.