True crime drama ‘Love & Death’ is like ‘Candy’ stretched too thin

HBO Max series again tells the story of 1980 axe murder in Texas, with less excitement.

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Elizabeth Olsen stars in “Love & Death” as Candy Montgomery, a real-life Texas housewife who killed her friend Betty Gore.

HBO Max

It’s been said the only fair way to judge a film or TV awards competition would be to have all the nominees perform the same work—and we actually have a small-sample version of that premise with the 2022 Hulu limited series “Candy” and the new HBO Max limited series “Love & Death,” in that both are fictionalized but faithful retellings of the events surrounding the true story of Texas housewife Candy Montgomery killing her friend and neighbor Betty Gore with an axe in suburban Texas in 1980.

While both series do a fine job of re-creating the late 1970s/early 1980s small-town community vibe and taking us through the paces of the case, “Candy” is slightly superior, in part because it takes five episodes to lay out the story while “Love & Death” stretches things to seven episodes—and frankly, the fact that “Candy” got there first makes “Love & Death” seem a little redundant and unnecessary.

This is through no fault of the performances. The former series starred Jessica Biel as Candy Montgomery, Melanie Lynskey as Betty Gore, Timothy Simons as Candy’s husband Pat and Pablo Schreiber as Betty’s husband Allan, while the latter has Elizabeth Olsen as Candy, Lily Rabe as Betty, Patrick Fugit as Pat and Jesse Plemons as Allan—and both quartets are excellent. It’s just that “Candy” painted a more impressionistic, darker and edgier picture, while “Love & Death” is a borderline dry procedural that only rarely leans into the lurid nature of the material.

‘Love & Death’

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A seven-episode series premiering with three episodes Thursday on HBO Max, which will show a new episode each Thursday through May 25.

I mean, we’ve got a churchgoing, affable, seemingly normal suburban housewife who has an affair with the husband of her close friend, and then whacks her putative rival some 40 times with an axe, to the point where the body was nearly unrecognizable? What drove her to such madness? It takes a long time for showrunner David E. Kelley to delve into Candy’s motivations in some late-episode trial sequences, and when we finally get there, the explanation is a howler.

Though at times moving at a near-glacial pace, “Love & Death” is a well-directed series, as we’re immersed in the relatively idyllic and closed-off culture of Wylie, Texas, population 3,152, where everybody seem to know everybody, and most social activities, from Sunday services to choir to volleyball matches to extracurricular activities for the children, revolve around the church.

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Married dullard Allan (Jesse Plemons) carries on a depressing affair with Candy.

HBO Max

Elizabeth Olsen’s Candy is an attractive, outgoing wife and mother who is married to a solid if boring guy in Pat (Patrick Fugit), who’s so docile he’s almost invisible. Seemingly out of the blue, Candy decides she’s going to have an affair with Jesse Plemons’ Allan, a stocky dullard with an unfortunate head of blond hair. He seems to go along with Candy’s plan mainly to get away from his wife Betty (Lily Rabe), a blunt instrument of a human being who rubs just about everyone the wrong way and has had serious issues with post-partum depression. (Every time Allan has to leave for a business trip, Betty spirals out of control. It’s heartbreaking.)

The production values are exquisite, as evidenced in the scenes where Candy and Allan meet in a depressing roadside motel room, where Candy lays out fancy lunches with wine for the two of them before their sexual assignations, which quickly become almost an afterthought to their companionship. In fact, the affair is months in the past when Betty confronts Candy on a quiet weekday morning in Betty’s kitchen, and the next thing we know, Betty and Candy are struggling over an axe in the laundry room, and Candy winds up slathered in blood after brutally slicing and dicing Betty to death.

With a resume that includes everything from “L.A. Law” to “The Practice” to “Boston Legal” to “The Undoing,” former attorney David E. Kelley is a master of the courtroom drama, and “Love & Death” picks up momentum in the later episodes concerning Candy’s trial. (Candy has admitted killing Betty; the case is all about whether it was murder, or self-defense.) Tom Pelphrey (“Ozark”) is a standout as Candy’s attorney, Don Crowder, a civil lawyer who embraces the high-profile case and gets into frequent battles with the obstinate judge (the always terrific Bruce McGill), who clearly favors the prosecution.

Elizabeth Olsen’s measured performance as Candy makes it difficult to penetrate her psyche, though we see glimpses of her tightly wound persona from time to time. Still, “Love & Death” rarely goes beyond a filmed timeline of events that are all too familiar to us by now. It’s time for us to leave poor Betty alone. What a sad and hard life she had, and what a horrific end she met.

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