When Feud is firing on all cylinders, it’s fantastic melodrama

Feud is back, with Tom Hollander playing Truman Capote as he betrays the trust of a group of society women he calls his ‘swans’ – played by Naomi Watts, Demi Moore, Diane Lane, Chloë Sevigny, Calista Flockhart and Molly Ringwald. While decidedly uneven, it’s just so hard not to have fun with a cast like this, says Amelia Berry.

Ryan Murphy is the king of a very particular kind of TV. From Nip/Tuck and Glee through to American Horror Story and Pose, his creations are high-camp, high-drama, deliriously artificial and polished to an impenetrable gleam. It’s something of an acquired taste, to say the least.

Back in 2017, the first season of Feud was very much a Ryan Murphy Show™—telling the story of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in full hi-gloss technicolor with a taste for melodrama that bordered on the silly. Now, for season two, Murphy has handed the reins to director Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Milk, Elephant) and writer Jon Robin Baitz (Stonewall, The Substance of Fire). The result is a very different kind of show.

Feud season two is about Truman Capote and the circle of high society women he calls his ‘Swans’. With his groundbreaking true crime novel In Cold Blood, Truman finally has the fame, fortune, and prestige he’s always wanted. But after a descent into alcoholism and a failure to make any headway on his novel Answered Prayers, Truman makes one last bid to stay relevant. He publishes a story in Esquire revealing all of the Swans’ most sordid scandals and darkest secrets. They do not take this lightly.

As Capote, Tom Hollander is crumpled, pathetic, and bitchy, with just enough charisma to hint at what he was like at his peak. The real stars, though, are the Swans. Naomi Watts is brilliant as Babe Paley, maintaining a subtlety and fragility while still giving the kind of big, heightened performance you need for standing next to a capital-C Character like Capote.

While Demi Moore has only a small role as Ann Woodward, she brings an unforgettable fury—made all the more palpable by some breathtakingly dramatic hair and eyebrows. With the cast rounded out by the likes of Diane Lane, Chloë Sevigny, Calista Flockhart, and Molly Ringwald, it’s pretty hard to go wrong.

So far, so Ryan Murphy. And while there’s an overall more subtle and naturalistic tone, the most dramatic change for season two is in the look of the thing. The warm, subdued palette with lashings of film grain give Feud a look almost like 1970s documentary footage. And while there’s no stringent dedication to recreating any one thing in particular, the general retro feel is given a lot of extra flavour through some intentionally janky focus pulling and split diopter effects. Add in the stunning costumes, hair, and sets, and every moment feels rich with visual detail.

When Feud is firing on all cylinders, it’s fantastic melodrama. Ann Woodward hissing slurs at Truman Capote in a packed restaurant. Babe pouring her heart out while Truman plays the cool and collected confidant. Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass blasting as a ridiculously opulent Thanksgiving dinner is prepared.

When it’s not, it can be… difficult. Hollander’s Capote often edges into shrillness—while maybe not unrealistic, it isn’t exactly pleasant. There are also some quite graphic scenes of intimate partner violence which jar with the cackling high-camp menace the rest of the show deals in. On a more minor point, the original music is astonishingly dull, feeling particularly stock next to the loving visual design.

But while decidedly uneven, it’s just so hard not to have fun with a cast like this. There’s always more desperately arch dialogue, more enormous hair, more scenery chewing just around the corner. If you love Murphy’s high-sheen kitsch, you might miss his particular brand of polish—but if that’s what was putting you off watching season one, it could be time to give Feud a try.