Halfway through Mosaic, the murder mystery’s rookie sleuth Petra begins pestering Nate, a police officer, about the holes in his now four-year-old murder investigation. Petra’s finding clues he clearly missed and she can’t understand why he missed them in the first place.
“You ever heard of Zebra-itus?” he eventually asks her. She hasn’t.
“If it smells like a horse, and it leaves a trail of horse prints, and a big pile of horse manure, it’s a horse,” he continues. “But amateurs and rookies and ‘think they’re so smart’ web sleuths spend all day poking through rainbows looking for zebras.”
Petra, the amateur, corrects him to say that he must mean unicorns because of, you know, the rainbow thing. “Even though I totally get your point,” she adds. Needless, to say she is ordered to step away from Nate’s crime scene.
Mosaic, the new HBO whodunnit from Steven Soderbergh, is a show about looking for zebras. Set in the gorgeous, snowy mountains of Colorado, the show follows the murder of Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone), a famous children’s book author and illustrator. On the outside Lake is a social butterfly and small town celebrity, but she lives a lonely life within the confines of her sprawling mountain property.
When her neighbors envy the plot of land she lives on and refuses to give up, they seize upon that loneliness by hiring the clean-cut con man Eric Neill (Frederick Weller) to seduce Olivia. At the same time she’s invited another young man to live with her: Joel Hurley (Garrett Hedlund), who works as Olivia’s part-time handyman and full-time eye candy. And when she is brutally murdered one New Years Eve, without a body to be found, there’s no clear suspect for who killed Olivia Lake (though that doesn’t stop the police from creating one).
Spanning six episodes, Mosaic (premiering January 22) takes time to find its footing. The first two episodes are filled with short scenes in choppy succession, which makes for a disorienting viewing experience when you’re trying to learn how all the characters are connected. The weird pacing is to be blamed on the fact that Mosaic was originally released as an app, on which you could follow the story through the eyes of singular characters. And because you’re limited to those specific perspectives you never quite get the full story, which makes the HBO’s linear version more preferable.
Thankfully the performances, especially Stone as Olivia Lake, make up for Mosaic’s initial issues. It’s a crime (literally) that Stone drops off so early in the show, because her run here as the perpetually cashmere-clad, sarcastic flirt makes you wish she had starring roles like this more often these days. Soderbergh’s direction, cold as ever, works beautifully against the backdrop of the frigid Colorado mountains. Despite some odd camera angles and a lot of close-ups, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a show initially meant for an iPhone at all.
But moreso than the fact that it was conceived as an “interactive” TV experiment, Mosaic is not a traditional murder mystery in the sense that we don’t get a strong, reliable lead to guide us through the investigation. Everyone plays a part in finding pieces of this increasingly engrossing puzzle: Eric’s dry, wannabe detective sister Petra Neill (Jennifer Ferrin), the small town cop Nate Henry (Devin Ratray), and the equally suspicious Joel and Eric. None of them are competent entirely on their own, paling in comparison to the sort of flawed but heroic detectives you might associate with similar dramas.
In giving us such erratic but compelling narratives, Mosaic has created a mystery for the exact kind of ‘think they’re so smart’ web sleuths Nate criticizes in the show. The app, while it’s not a game, gives the appearance of having to dig for evidence, doling out little primary documents like news articles to read as you watch, and you get the same feeling from watching the show as the plot swerves you in so many different directions. By Mosaic’s end there are still questions left unanswered, but it’s ultimately up to you to consider all the evidence and figure out if there’s still a rainbow worth poking through.