If standard episodic television is comparable to pop music – designed to be instantly pleasing, catchy, moreish, and to adhere to familiar patterns – “The Eddy,” Netflix‘s new 8-part limited series has the admirable ambition to be jazz. Set in and around the struggling eponymous club, in an untrendy quarter of modern-day Paris, it’s truly impressive the degree to which it succeeds: over its eight episodes, seven of which follow different individual members of The Eddy’s house band or someone intimately associated with it, it becomes a single, long, rambling number, full of detours and details that spotlight first this soloist, then the next, each riffing almost unrecognizably on the same themes, before touching back in with the ensemble.
And what an ensemble: this is an impeccably cast mixture of recognizable actors (Andre Holland, Tahar Rahim, Joanna Kulig, Amandla Stenberg) and working musicians such as Croatian jazz drummer Lada Obradovic and French double-bassist Damian Nueva, both in their first acting roles. Onscreen pianist Randy is played by Randy Kerber, who also co-supervises the music for the show, alongside Jagged Little Pill producer and songwriter Glen Ballard, who wrote most of the original songs that feature, including the show-stopping central, minor-key motif than closes episode one on a gorgeously downer high. And so the live music scenes, of which there are many but never too many, crackle with authenticity and a rare sense of musical freedom, to become a compelling portrait of the creative chemistry that is the energizing dynamic behind any good band.
But though the newness of this approach flirts with greatness at times – especially in its absolutely stellar opening episode, directed by a pace-setting Damien Chazelle – over the long haul, it sometimes makes “The Eddy” a challenge: there are lulls and longueurs that require a little more patience than we’re used to investing in a television show, and for every inspired riff or improvisational flight of fancy, there is another that doesn’t quite fire up the synapses the same way. “Who on earth has ever enjoyed a drum solo?” asks French pop idol Daniel Perrin (Tchéky Karyo) of band vocalist Maja (Kulig) at one point. And though Perrin is the very symbol of bland, sell-out success, and Maja insists that she does, in fact, enjoy a drum solo, the point holds: part of the joy of jazz is its unpredictability, its peaks and troughs, the very idea that you will not groove to all parts equally. But it takes a leap of faith, or at least a few key changes, for our pop-TV-addled brains to rewire to this unevenness when it’s transposed to drama.
If you can make that leap, though “The Eddy” can be a thrilling experience, one that immerses you in this comprehensively imagined world so wholly you can smell the cigarette smoke in your clothes and feel the cobblestone grit of a drunken walk home at dawn under your feet. The club is run by Elliot (Holland), a pensive American ex-pat bandleader and once-famous pianist, and his friend Farid (Rahim) an expansive, genial family man, married to Amira (Leila Bekhti). Elliot’s estranged, recovering addict daughter Julie (Stenberg) comes to stay with him from New York just as his recent breakup with vocalist Maja is threatening the stability of the band. And at just that moment, the club’s financial troubles, which Farid has kept hidden from everyone, come to a head in a sudden and totally destabilizing act of violence.
Over the course of the subsequent polyglot episodes, which are in an effortlessly convincing combination of French and English with a smattering of Arabic and Polish, as the characters sometimes slip from one to another within the same sentence (this is one of the best portrayals of actual multicultural life in recent memory), we also meet Sim (a lovely turn from newcomer Adil Dehbi) a good-natured young barman who is a musician himself and who befriends Julie; Katarina (Obradovic) the band’s dreadlocked drummer who is looking after an invalid father at home; Jude (Nueva) the laid-back double bass player who struggles with substance abuse and a disappointed love affair; as well as a couple of local gangsters and henchmen involved in the more nefarious side of the business, and the dogged police officer on their trail.
The buzzy filmmaking is a huge part of the show’s appeal, with a slate of behind-camera talent as carefully selected as any virtuoso band. Chazelle directs the first two episodes, but the following six are directed, two each, by Houda Benyamina (“Divines“), Laila Marrakchi (“Rock the Casbah“), and producer Alan Poul (“Six Feet Under,” “The Newsroom“). And perhaps even more central to the consistent look and feel, the long handheld shots that seem intimately acquainted with the grimy urban glamor of un-touristy Paris, the series’ two cinematographers are Eric Gautier (“Ash is Purest White,” “The Truth“) and Julien Poupard, who worked with Benjamina before on “Divines,” and who also shot Ladj Ly‘s Oscar-nominated “Les Miserables.” And then there’s the ever-present music, mostly jazz but with a little rap, a little pop, and even a cover of Mika‘s “Elle Me Dit” thrown in for good measure: it’s a heady mix that threads sinuously in and out of the storylines as each of the musicians contend not only with their personal and interpersonal dramas but with their relationship to their instrument, their talent, and of course, to the band as an entity greater than the sum of all of their parts.
If there is a weak link in the production, it is in its plotting (by series creator Jack Thorne, who is a big noise in UK TV with the BBC’s adaptation of “His Dark Materials” as well as Shane Meadows‘ fantastic “The Virtues” and “This Is England” shows under his belt, and a slightly less big noise at the movies, having written the coolly received “The Aeronauts” and “Radioactive,” last year). The structure is neither taut and surprising enough to make “The Eddy” an addictive, gotta-know-what-happens-next rollercoaster, nor loose enough to allow it to dispense with generic cliche altogether. There are repetitions that reveal themselves as the episodes progress – too many 11th-hour phone calls, too many contrived moments that could easily be defused if one character had a brief conversation with another. There’s even a romantic-dash-to-the-airport, a Bad Thing planned for the benefit of a sick grandmother and can there be any doubt, when we first learn that Elliot has had some sort of psychological resistance to performing in public for years, that is what must finally happen? As much as the filmmaking kicks against convention, sometimes it feels like the show is being pulled back against its will to this somewhat desultory framework when the most interesting elements are those that happen when the plot isn’t looking. In jazz it can feel like melody is merely the excuse for the music, a springboard for something wilder and freer, but “The Eddy,” ambitious though it is in formal terms, is not quite confident enough to dispense with the narrative training wheels altogether.
But if it perhaps does not go far enough, it still goes further than most episodic TV to subtly question the way we expect television drama to unfold, and to provide a fresh, alternative approach. That might, of course, be as much a liability as a boost to its eventual reception: Two months ago, when I wrote about how much I loved the first two episodes when they were shown at the glitzy premiere at the Berlin Film Festival (you can read that review here) it was from the perspective that novel and different were necessarily good things. But now, what feels like roughly twenty-five years later when many of us crave only the most familiar and untaxing of entertainments, I wonder how inclined the Netflix audience will be to engage with something that, at its best, is not really like anything else. Then again, in another way, it might make for perfect quarantine viewing: it gives such a strong sense of place and atmosphere that after it ends, it’s hard to believe The Eddy is not a real neighborhood joint and that you haven’t just been there on one of those legendary never-ending evenings that start off one way and end someplace else, as though following, pied-piper-style, a long meandering blare of jazz trumpet into the night. [B+]