Critic

Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic Is Sleep No More for the Television Set

Not quite a choose-your-own-adventure TV show, this HBO project combines an interactive app with a six-part series.

Illustration: Sarah Mazzetti

If you know how this one ends, scroll down. In 1969, on his commute home, Edward Packard, a lawyer for RCA Records, penned a story with an inventive twist: The reader would decide the plot turns. A decade later, Bantam Books picked up the concept in earnest, and the choose-your-own-adventure craze began.

Since then the concept of an interactive narrative has had as many branching paths and dead ends as its namesake (and copyrighted) format. Video games have evolved to feel like participatory movies, and 2016 brought us Late Shift, the “world’s first interactive cinematic movie.” Since 2011 the theater production Sleep No More has lured audiences for repeat viewings by offering viewers the chance to see new aspects of the story each time.

Mosaic, a miniseries from director Steven Soderbergh, is the latest, a rare attempt in Hollywood to relinquish control to the audience. It began as a free app in November and premiers Monday on HBO.

Mosaic, as seen on the app.

The app explores the small-town murder of children’s book author Olivia Lake (the slinkily excellent Sharon Stone), a woman surrounded by questionable love interests and friends. The narrative is built around 15 “nodes” split among the points of view of key characters—a con artist (Frederick Weller), a handsome lover (Garrett Hedlund), a slimy best friend (a gleeful Paul Reubens in his element), and a local detective (Devin Ratray) seemingly in over his head. The Rashomon-like tale tugs on themes familiar to the whodunit setup: There are no truths, only perspectives.

Watch one node, and you’re given a choice: Continue down the path with this character, or switch to a new one and gain an additional perspective. As you go, you’ll unlock supplemental “discovery” information in the form of documents, web pages, and voice mails, as well as other storylines you may want to go back and explore. On the surface, it feels as if you should be able to hop around endlessly from person to person, but given that each node can be 15, 25, or even 60 minutes long, unraveling the mystery of Olivia Lake can feel plodding—a deconstructed season of television. Scenes can repeat two or three times; completionists, beware.

Yet something magical happens about two-thirds of the way in: Mosaic offers the potential that you’ll come to the end in a way that is unique to you. The emotional ups and downs feel like your own creation. It’s easy to forget Soderbergh is stringing you along.

Paul Reubens and Sharon Stone in Mosaic.
Photographer: Photographer: Claudette Barius/HBO

When viewed on HBO in its six, Soderbergh-edited episodes, it’s clear that Mosaic’s innovations don’t quite subvert the suspense genre. Without choices, it’s another passive, of-the-moment crime drama you’ll either come to love or loathe. That basic-ness is likely a product of the setup—to achieve the complexity of the app’s nonlinear storytelling, the story itself had to remain straightforward. (Similarly, Netflix Inc.’s attempt at interactive plotting started with a simple kid’s cartoon, Puss in Book.) In style, Mosaic falls somewhere between Soderbergh’s gleaming Ocean’s Eleven and the more auteur-ish Full Frontal or The Girlfriend Experience. It’s only in the app that Mosaic becomes unlike anything you’ve come to expect from prestige TV.

In the story, Olivia Lake’s magnum opus is a book which, read one way, features a ferocious bear out to get a hunter. Read another way, it’s about a fearsome hunter out to get a defenseless bear. Lake was so infatuated by the concept that she constructed a “story trail” on her property. When two characters, Joel (Hedlund) and Petra (Jennifer Ferrin), visit the trail for clues, Petra asks which way they should take. “Well, it’s a circle,” admits Joel, who lives on the property. “They both end up at the same place.”

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