When miniseries king Ryan Murphy first announced his latest offering, looking at different famous feuds throughout history beginning with actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the show seemed like an exercise in camp. Murphy is no stranger to that playful and over-the-top style, as seen in his works like Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story and Scream Queens.
And, of course, Davis and Crawford’s 1962 thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a centerpiece for Feud, was an early adopter of the camp genre. Baby Jane followed the lives of rival sisters Jane (Davis) and Blanche (Crawford). As children, the younger Jane was the star of the family, but her success quickly fizzled while Blanche’s blossomed. Decades later, the two sisters live together once again, with wheelchair-bound Blanche in her evil sister’s charge. Garish makeup, sisterly beatings and dead rats abound.
Feud: Bette and Joan (Season Finale, 10 p.m. Sunday, FX) certainly is campy, too. Something about dueling divas lends itself to comical dramatics. It’s delightful to watch Susan Sarandon (Davis) and Jessica Lange (Crawford) command these complex roles, and they deliver far more than just bitchy tiffs.
At the heart of Feud is an exploration of the relationships these women have — with themselves, each other, the other women and girls in their lives, and their mostly male colleagues. Baby Jane benefited from the real rivalry between its aging stars — a feud fueled by those behind the scenes. Instead of teaming up to demand respect, the women are pitted against each other, as women in power so often are.
In a Feud scene with Crawford and her housekeeper/confidant Mamacita, the latter points out to the actress — failing to find work after a promising performance in Baby Jane — how men are becoming a minority, so movies will be forced to be made for and by women in the future.
More than 50 years after the time in which that scene is set, women-centered media still feels like a rare novelty. But a project like Feud certainly represents a start. Murphy filmed the season while forming the Half Foundation, which looks to increase diversity in film and TV by filling 50 percent of directorial spots on his projects with women and people of color. This mission was accomplished in Feud, with women directors, including Helen Hunt, filling half the bill. And the show features a notable 15 roles for women 40 and older.
But it’s with this perspective that Feud, despite all its biting humor and sass, becomes something much darker than camp. Davis and Crawford — as flawed as they may have been — were used up by Hollywood and hung out to dry, manipulated for our entertainment. It begs the question: Do today’s viewers watch Feud as a juicy drama, or do they see a cautionary tale? We still have a long way to go, baby.
Picks of the Week
Fargo (Season Premiere, 10 p.m. Wednesday, FX) – In the long-awaited return of the Coen Brothers-inspired anthology, a rivalry between two brothers (both played by Ewan McGregor in strikingly different looks) snowballs into a bloody chain of events that shakes a small Minnesota town.
Fuck, That’s Delicious 4/20 Special (10:30 p.m. Thursday, VICELAND) – Because of course VICELAND celebrates 4/20. Action Bronson and Co. head to New York to hunt down the best Italian joint in Brooklyn and also seafood in Harlem. Do not watch if you have the munchies.
Silicon Valley (Season Premiere, 10 p.m. Sunday, HBO) – Season 4 finds the guys struggling to secure funding for Pied Piper’s video chat app as their user base continues to grow. Elsewhere, Erlich gets pushback from Big Head’s dad; Jack steps on Gavin’s toes; and Richard receives wise advice.
Mary Kills People (Series Premiere, 10 p.m. Sunday, Lifetime) – Hannibal’s Caroline Dhavernas stars as Mary Harris: E.R. doctor by day, angel of death by night, who secretly helps euthanize terminally ill patients.
CONTACT JAC KERN: @jackern