Solos (Amazon Prime) creator David Weil has said his inspiration for the series came from the things he’s “not allowed to do as a writer”. Apparently, this means thinking like a playwright, and creating scenarios for a tiny number of isolated characters who speak in long, meaningful monologues.
It’s true that this seven-part sci-fi anthology is more like an Alan-Bennett-at-the-Beeb than we are accustomed to expect from the streaming giants, where the overall drive to throw money at the problem usually means large casts and sprawling stories. Here, each episode clocks in at less than half an hour, and showcases the talent of a different Hollywood star. Helen Mirren, Dan Stevens and Morgan Freeman all have a go, among others. On the evidence of the first two episodes, the actors might have been drawn by the opportunity to take on every thespian’s favourite challenge: playing multiple characters who talk to each other. Actors are obsessed with these roles, which let them demonstrate the full range of two (or more!) people.
In the first episode of Solos, Anthony Mackie plays Tom, a successful investment type who has paid a lot of money to meet a man who looks exactly like him, apparently a clone or some other simulacrum. Tom wears a burgundy suit over a burgundy shirt, so he is clearly not short of confidence. The new guy is more modestly dressed in a light blue jumper. Yet as the new man quizzes Tom about the details of his life, cracks appear in his facade. As Tom describes his family, it’s clear he’s going away, perhaps forever. He emits a single cough – internationally recognised actor code for imminent tragic death. This imitator is meant to replace him, or at least aspects of his presence. It’s a weird idea, of course, but the technological element is simply a peg on which to hang a few emotional statements about family. Mackie’s fine, but he can only work with the material provided. Monologues, or even mono-actor two-handers, rely on the writing. When it really matters, this intriguing premise is let down by its dialogue.
“I’m nervous,” says blue jumper at one point.
“About what?” Tom asks.
“That I won’t be just like you. That I’m gonna be imperfect or I’m gonna do something wrong.”
“Then you’ll be just like me,” Tom says, with a reassuring smile. Send for the robot-holo-clone replacement scriptwriter!
The second instalment is more fun, at least to begin with. Anne Hathaway gets to play at least three versions of her character, Leah, a kind, millennial nutty professor, who talks to her past and future selves through a Matrix-style computer assembly. It’s refreshing to see a sci-fi ready to commit to a few gags as well as nonsense physics. Hathaway has the timing to go with the time travel. As the reality of her situation emerges, however, the story feels stretched thin. The winking-to-the-audience quips about Ruffalo and Lohan don’t help build our sympathy. When her breakdown comes, we’re hardly invested in any of the Leahs. Time on TV is a tricky business. Often, half an hour’s not long enough, but sometimes it’s too much.