Of all the marriage vows, “til death us do part” is perhaps the most famous, and the most frequently ignored. But for a congregation at a Methodist church in late-1970s Texas, there aren’t many parts of the wedding ceremony that will survive intramural desecration. This is the backdrop to Love & Death, a lavish HBO true crime series, now making its way to ITV to show that America’s famous Bible Belt gets loosened sometimes…
Elizabeth Olsen is Candy Montgomery, a well-coiffed stay-at-home mom in Carter-era America. She puts beef through the mincer to make hamburger patties, sings alto next to her husband in the church choir, and forces a comb through the unruly hair of her unruly children. In short, she’s a bored housewife. “If you ain’t searching,” she tells her friend Sherry (Krysten Ritter), “you’re lost.” And Candy is lost; a disorientation that leads her into the arms of her friend, and fellow churchgoer, Allan Gore (Jesse Plemons). Candy is the congregational Queen Bee and Allan a slightly lumpen goofball, but somehow the affair ignites. “It’s nice to be noticed,” she confesses, “to be adored a little.”
But this is a David E Kelley show, and from the opening shot we know where it will end: with a blood-spattered bathroom and an unknown dead body. Kelley’s most recent hit, Big Little Lies, pulled the same trick, with disaster constantly foreshadowed (clearly this is the creative tension du jour, as the much-heralded White Lotus series also employed the device). Candy is indiscreet, letting both Sherry and pastor Jackie (Elizabeth Marvel) in on her secret. As the entanglement rumbles on, Candy’s position becomes more confused. Allan becomes a second husband: she cooks him lunches in seedy motel rooms, leaves cookies on his car at work, and asks after the emotional wellbeing of his wife, Betty (Lily Rabe). But before this seven-episode mini-series is out, one side of this love triangle will be dead and another in the dock for their murder.
Love & Death is based on a true story, which was, bizarrely, already dramatised in a 2022 five-part mini-series, Candy, starring Jessica Biel as Montgomery and Pablo Schreiber and Melanie Lynskey as the Gores. I suppose prestige dramas about historic murders are like London buses, but, all the same, it speaks to a lack of imagination that is present in Love & Death. Kelley is adept at handling the creeping sense of dread and has mastered the repressed violence of American domesticity. Yet Love & Death feels by the numbers. Humanising the adulterous Candy – a task that other representations of the story have skipped on – is a noble addition to the rote true crime story, but the lure of the salacious proves too strong. Before long, the shadow of the axe is, quite literally, looming.
But in a television landscape where standalone mini-series increasingly dominate the prestige end of the scale, Love & Death is another suitably glossy addition. Olsen is an excellent screen actor whose career has been derailed by an oppressive commitment to Marvel Studios (she has starred in six movies and two TV series as Wanda Maximoff). Alongside Plemons – a heavyweight of American TV, from Breaking Bad to Fargo – she has enormous fun demonstrating the brittle psyche behind the buttoned-down dresses and perfect smile. “You’re the belle of the ball at church,” the pastor tells Candy, who is dogged by persistent thoughts about her close friend’s husband’s “perfectly shaped penis”. It is a cognitive dissonance that Olsen inhabits flawlessly.
Yet the structure of the show – which, in its first half, builds up to the crime, and then spends the second act resolving that in a Texas courthouse – is simple to the point of unambitious. It lacks the devilish intricacy of The White Lotus, the fastidious detachment of Mindhunter or the emotional messiness of Mare of Easttown. It is a bit, as the teens would say, mid.
But, at present, even the most mid-tier of American crime mini-series is still a league above its British counterparts. For ITV, Love & Death is a savvy acquisition. Anchored by true A-list firepower in its central performance, the plot – stretched thin over the seven-hour duration – survives the protraction. Overlong, imperfect and yet basically enjoyable, Love & Death is, perhaps, the perfect metaphor for marriage itself.