‘Full Circle’: Steven Soderbergh’s Botched Kidnapping Series  Is A ‘Traffic’-esque Throwback  [Tribeca]

From the moment Tribeca Festival (no longer just film!) dropped its TV lineup, one title caught our eye: Steven Sodebergh’s “Full Circle.” His latest Max original, another reteaming with “Mosaic” and “No Sudden Move” writer Ed Solomon, looked like just the kind of miniseries sensation the summer needs. We’ll have a full review of the series later, but here’s what we learned at Tribeca — both from the first two episodes and the Q&A that followed.

“Full Circle” takes Soderbergh back to his hyperlink cinema roots. The first two episodes teased the collapse of boundaries between stories set in Guyana and New York City. It feels like a throwback to his “Traffic” era as characters come to realize their interconnected struggles across porous national borders.

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It’s a spin on Kurosawa’s “High and Low.” Cinephiles well-versed in their Criterion Collection classics might pick up some parallels early, and they aren’t crazy. Soderbergh did confirm that Solomon (not in attendance on the panel due to the ongoing WGA strike) had the film in mind. Kurosawa’s legendary crime thriller is about kidnappers who don’t realize they grabbed the wrong child when attempting to extort a powerful family, and a similar premise plays out in “Full Circle” as a wealthy Manhattanite couple debates whether to meet the ransom demands to save an unknown child. However, there’s a twist on the inspiration that Soderbergh teased will come in later episodes.

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It also incorporates a real-life story of insurance schemes. According to Soderbergh, a news piece stuck in Solomon’s head from two decades prior began asserting its presence in the script. That story involved “transient people, unbeknownst to them, [who] would have life insurance policies taken out, premiums paid, and they would disappear.” When describing how those two disparate threads intertwined in Solomon’s mind, Soderbergh boldly proclaimed: “This is why I’m not afraid of AI!”

At the center of the story are two matriarchs. Moderator Touré made the claim that Claire Danes’ Sam, the mother of the intended kidnapping target, is the center of the world — “unbeknownst to her,” Danes added. “I loved how secure she felt and sure she was that she was authoring her own experience,” the actress explained. “That gets upended, and she’s forced to confront the facts that she was not so aware of in her life.” But in the first two episodes, the real string-puller appears to be CCH Pounder’s “Auntie,” who serves as a community pillar in Queens’ Guyanese diaspora. The titular “full circle” in the first two episodes is this recent widow performing the spiritual tradition of Obeah with Guayanese rice to restore balance in the universe following the death of her husband.

It’s more than just a white family under attack. Anyone familiar with Soderbergh’s work, particularly “Traffic,” probably does not need reminding. But it’s clear that the family business of the intended victim, teenaged Jared (Ethan Stoddard), played some part in his targeting. His grandfather is the celebrity culinary artist known as “Chef Jeff,” a ponytailed mogul who actor Dennis Quaid said he found somewhat of a fop upon reading the script. His daughter Sam, along with her husband Derek (Timothy Olyphant), now presides over his growing media empire. The first two episodes don’t give away the game here, but it will be curious to watch their backstory develop. “It’s a slow reveal,” Soderbergh divulged. “That’s the task of any project: what information do you release when? You want people reaching for you, but if they become frustrated, tired, or annoyed, you’re going to lose them.”

It also doesn’t flatten or exoticize the Guyanese Americans. Pounder and co-star Phaldut Sharma, who plays her “man of business” Garmen, helped bring specificity to the project, down to the cadences of the accents. And though the kidnapping and attempted ransom-taking pits the community as the more aggressive party in the first two episodes, the cast hints that the balance will shift. Look for it most in the character played by Jharrel Jerome, the ringleader of some younger boys tasked with seeing the task through to completion. “You’ll see that he’s more than just this angry dude,” Jerome claims for those who finish the series.

The biggest open question remains Zazie Beetz’s Harmony. The “Atlanta” standout has plenty of scenes in the first two episodes, be it breaking up with her girlfriend or feuding with her boss (Jim Gaffigan) in the U.S. Postal Service’s police corps. She wants to be involved in a case involving Guyana and can’t get officially assigned, so she takes matters into her own hands by trying to pressure one of the would-be kidnappers to flip for her. Harmony will clearly exert her investigative might somehow, but the precise nature of where she will fit remains murky. For now, Beetz was willing to offer that Harmony is “her own worst enemy,” describing her as “deeply insecure” and needing validation. Soderbergh added that Beetz summed up her character as “uncentered.”

The first two episodes feel self-contained but open to expansion. Soderbergh knows how to tell a tight story that delivers payouts at reasonable intervals. The first two episodes of “Full Circle” contain a satisfying narrative arc that finds reasonable resolution while still leaving some clear unfinished business. No matter where the miniseries goes, it’s clear that we are looking at some vintage Soderbergh both in form and content. (Yes, there’s even some cheeky humor amidst the dour subject matter!) This is economical storytelling expressed with a clear, unfussy vision.

The first two episodes of “Full Circle” premiere on July 13 on Max.