It’s rare to say “I could barely get through this show” and mean it as high praise, but that’s what I’m telling people about Sorry for Your Loss, the new Facebook Watch drama from playwright Kit Steinkellner that stars Elizabeth Olsen as a young widow. It’s a meticulously observed and often cathartic experience, the kind of show that can make a person feel seen for the first time. It took me back to the weeks and months immediately following the death of my first wife, Jennifer — an event I’ve written about and publicly discussed with other people who’ve been through it — in a visceral way that I wasn’t really prepared for.
It captures how objects and rooms can spontaneously trigger memories, some wrenching and others outwardly mundane. It also gets how death can induce an inadvertent and unthinking but still destructive narcissism in the bereaved, who understandably feel furious that the world has moved on even though they’re not yet ready to. In their numb, foggy state, they may not realize that other people close to them are grieving, too, but are keeping it to themselves because they believe they don’t rank high enough in the emotional pecking order to share their own sadness with others. Sorry for Your Loss packs so much of this sort of thing into every minute of every half-hour episode that sitting through it can be an exhausting experience. This show is work, in the way that therapy undertaken in the proper spirit is work, and the way that relationships are work, and grieving is work. It’s unpleasant a lot of the time, but you still have to commit if you’re going to get anything positive out of it. If you’re able to do that, you might come out on the other side feeling a sense of accomplishment, and maybe even knowing yourself better than when you went in.
The story is set in suburban Los Angeles, where Leigh (Olsen) works as an aerobics instructor alongside her sister Jules (Kelly Marie Tran) and her mother Amy (Janet McTeer), who owns the place. Leigh’s late husband Matt (Mamoudou Athie) struggled with depression, though it’s initially unclear what role if any that might have played in his death. The show holds a lot of narrative cards in reserve and takes its time playing them. There are indications that Leigh didn’t know Matt as well as she thought — she didn’t know the password for his cell phone and becomes obsessed with unlocking it — but it’s impossible to tell whether Leigh has reason to be suspicious, or if Matt’s death has discombobulated her to the point where she’s imagining things.
Leigh is the center of the show, but one of the more thoughtful aspects of Sorry for Your Loss is the way it admits that the choice of protagonist is somewhat arbitrary, and that other people in Matt’s orbit didn’t necessarily feel less of a sting when he died just because they weren’t married to him. Matt’s brother Danny (Jovan Adepo) is also in an emotional tailspin, and in the aftermath of the tragedy, his already prickly relationship with Leigh becomes contentious. He resents that she’s being treated as the one who suffered most. “You can get another husband,” he snaps, during an especially fraught argument. “I can’t get another brother.”
It’s a shitty thing to say, but no worse than a lot of the things that Leigh says to Danny — or, for that matter, that she says to Jules, an addict who entered recovery after Matt’s death, just got her three-month chip, and continues to walk on eggshells around her sister even when Leigh sticks her with verbal barbs at every turn. “You’re allowed to feel what you feel,” says Amy, an emotional rock who always makes sense even when her words of wisdom turn oppressively New Agey. “No, I’m not, actually,” Jules replies, “because she would say that I was being selfish and that I was making it about me.”
It is about her, and it’s also Amy, and Danny, and all the people in Leigh’s grief group who’ve all lost people close to them but don’t always express themselves in the same way as the standoffish, acerbic heroine. It’s not an ouch contest, even though society — American society perhaps more than most — sometimes acts like it is. Some people are supposed to “get over it” more quickly than others, and when they don’t, we say they’re wallowing. Different people process the experience differently, use different language, employ different coping mechanisms, and collectively, we don’t know how to allow for that, account for it, and be patient and merciful. Some people do an exemplary job of holding things together when the world is falling apart; others simply fall apart, sometimes looking at the people who don’t and wondering, “What’s the point of holding it together? What are you trying to prove, and to whom? Are you expecting a cookie?”
Sorry for Your Loss has put a tremendous amount of thought into this subject before exploring it, and lays things out for us in an anthropologically exact way without losing the warmth and humor it needs to keep us coming back. The direction — by executive producer James Ponsoldt, Allison Anders, Azazel Jacobs, Rose Troche, and Jessica Yu, among others — favors performance over visuals, always erring on the side of the small realization and the marginal detail. To use a phrase employed by Amy, it “respects the objects” that it shows us, and the individuals who hold them and contemplate them. A razor, a bottle of pills, a shirt, a sketchbook, and a drafting board all have talismanic power because the camera is just looking at them in an uninflected way, letting us imprint our own associations upon them in addition to everything we’ve learned from following the story.
This is a wonderful show. I learned a lot about myself watching it. It made me want to apologize to a lot of people and also forgive myself. It looks at the world with a generous eye and sees that we’re all just muddling through.