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Roku’s ‘Swimming With Sharks’: TV Review

Kathleen Robertson’s take on the 1994 film features Diane Kruger as a demanding executive and Kiernan Shipka as a seemingly innocent assistant who isn’t that innocent.

I’m a sucker for direct-to-video nominal sequels to well-made ’90s cult favorites that latch onto the limited value of a marginal brand to do something trashier and more exploitative than the original.

They’re good for trivia! Like: How many films followed up Drew Barrymore’s erotic thriller Poison Ivy? [Three.] Who starred in The Last Seduction II in place of Linda Fiorentino? [Joan Severance.] Is Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby a real movie? [Apparently.]

George Huang’s 1994 dark comedy Swimming With Sharks, a film that attracted most of its attention for Kevin Spacey’s blistering performance as a studio mogul tormenting a young assistant, somehow never got its own Confessions of a Trickbaby, a tawdrier, barely (if at all) connected follow-up.

Until now!

Originally developed for the dearly departed Quibi and now launching as a Roku Channel original, the six-episode Swimming With Sharks is a fast-moving roll-around in the mud of Hollywood, requiring precisely zero awareness of the film. It’s also, at every turn, a show that opts for down-and-dirty entertainment at the expense of a more tangibly substantive show that appears to have been sent out by its tyrannical boss on a menial errand.

Swimming With Sharks was created and written in its entirety by Beverly Hills, 90210 favorite Kathleen Robertson and directed in its entirety by Tucker Gates — they worked together previously on Bates Motel — and it features Kiernan Shipka as Lou, newly hired intern to Joyce (Diane Kruger), famously abusive head of Fountain Pictures.

But is Joyce actually abusive or is she a victim of the Hollywood patriarchy — a deliciously grotesque Donald Sutherland plays Joyce’s decrepit boss, Redmond — and an industry-infecting gender double standard? There wouldn’t be much empathy here if the answer weren’t the latter.

And is Lou actually the wide-eyed, fresh-off-the-bus innocent she seems, or is she a vicious, manipulative social climber willing to do anything it takes to get a piece of a mythical studio-era Hollywood dream imparted to her by her mother (Robertson, fleetingly)? There wouldn’t be much fun here if the answer weren’t closer to the latter.

While Swimming With Sharks is quick to acknowledge that power relations in Tinseltown are a cesspool that poisons everything and everybody that comes through the Dream Factory, that’s not really what the show is about. This is a fact that I confess astounded and distracted me, because when series development was announced, bringing Swimming With Sharks to the Time’s Up/#MeToo era — a moment at which the pathological behavior of notorious figures like Scott Rudin has gone from open secret to the stuff of voluminously researched exposés — actually felt like a really fertile idea.

Instead of directly addressing and deconstructing the current cultural landscape, exploring how things got so bad and offering a bleakly satirical look at how things might change, Swimming With Sharks is really a dark comedy about erotic obsession, with an undercurrent about mental illness that gets even shorter shrift than the Hollywood power dynamics.

Much of this is a product of the original outlet. The series is six episodes of between 20 and 28 minutes, which presumably would have been broken down into 10 or 12 “quick bites” pre-Roku, favoring narrative momentum over character depth or traditional coherence.

Once Swimming With Sharks really gets going, and once Lou’s interest in Joyce progresses from picking up her dog’s lunch order to using her sexual wiles and lack of moral compass to make herself indispensable to her new boss and idol, it becomes breakneck at the expense of even basic internal logic. Especially when it comes to Thomas Dekker’s Travis, Joyce’s favored assistant before Lou’s arrival, the show consistently feels like it’s missing key scenes — and, in a couple of instances, feels like scenes were pasted in at arbitrary points with no connection to anything else occurring. It becomes All About Eve — or the “Dead Blondes” season of the You Must Remember This podcast — without the connective tissue between acts of betrayal and, of course, without the crackling dialogue.

The dialogue isn’t quite as good as Huang’s movie script either, which has a lot to do with defanging the merciless central executive, or at least giving her limited fangs. Joyce is demanding and precise, but not in a way that makes her fearsome. Presumably, the conventions of the female boss-from-hell are so borderline-regressive that Robertson decided to skip the trope entirely. As played by the assertive Kruger, Joyce comes across as a reasonable mentor, and if she’s mean to Travis or to her second-in-command Marty (Finn Jones), it’s because Travis is a screw-up and Marty is a forgettable bore. If she’s contemptuous of her deadbeat artist husband (Gerardo Celasco), it’s because he deserves it.

I hate to say it because there’s too much TV and nothing on TV should ever be wished longer, but at six hour-long episodes, Joyce would be a better character and able to generate more conflict with Redmond — Sutherland is, again, a lizard-y delight — and more friction of various kinds with Lou.

Shipka is perfect for this truncated series because she’s a walking piece of character shorthand. Because we watched her grow up on Mad Men, any time she does anything slightly devious or even vaguely sexual, the immediate temptation is to yell, “Cover yourself up, Sally Draper!” or “That’s not how a young lady behaves, Sally Draper!” at the screen. The audience’s ingrained shock saves the show from directly depicting anything all that shocking (Roku’s content standards seem weirdly contradictory). Dialogue repeating Lou’s age reassures us that it’s OK to be horrified at watching this recently juvenile actress being bad. Shipka delivers her tart, threatening kiss-offs well, and she has a wicked grin down pat, but somewhere in between feigned innocence and smirking villainy is the real person the show simply doesn’t have time to introduce us to.

Once you get past waiting for Swimming With Sharks to fully emerge as either a definitive text on Hollywood toxicity or a rounded character study of two strong women in a world of unworthy men, to fully allow Kruger to give the sort of robust lead performance she’s manifestly capable of giving, to fully cement Shipka’s transition into grownup stardom — you can enjoy its garish, mostly PG-13 level of nasty fun. It’s entertaining. It could have been much more.

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