Vicky Jones and HBO collaborate on a hit or miss comedy-drama about ex-flames who take a whirlwind trip across the country.
Unless you’re reading this in the future, it’s likely that you’re currently at home, under a “shelter in place” directive due to the COVID-19 epidemic. This means you’re strongly discouraged from going anywhere but the grocery store or the pharmacy. Social gatherings are all but forbidden. Communicating with friends and family members is limited to text messages and video chats. It’s the absolute worst time to blow up your whole life and take a trip with your college boyfriend, as does the protagonist of HBO’s new limited series Run, a show that may, under different circumstances, land better, but instead comes off as tedious and tin-eared.
This is, of course, not HBO’s fault, or the show’s creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge‘s frequent collaborator Vicky Jones, or its stars. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s simply an issue of bad timing. Viewers may get some escapist fantasy enjoyment out of the characters just throwing all caution to the wind and running away from their problems, but right now those problems seem impossibly small and meaningless. Caring about whether or not these people find happiness and meaning in their lives is more of a challenge than it normally would be.
The series opens with housewife Ruby Richardson (Merritt Wever) receiving what appears to be an ominous text message: “RUN.” Ruby’s reaction is a fascinating mix of fear and excitement, and it takes her less than a minute before responding, sending back the same message. We soon learn that this is part of a pact she made with her college boyfriend, Billy Johnson (Domnhall Gleeson), nearly two decades earlier: if one of them texted “RUN” and the other responded, they would meet on a train at Grand Central Station and take off for parts unknown together, no questions asked.
“We made a pact that must be kept” is an extremely “only in the movies” concept, as is the idea that the person you loved when you were twenty still knows you better than anyone else ever did, or ever will. Nevertheless, with remarkable timing and coordination, Ruby and Billy end up on the same cross-country train together. If Billy’s motivations for meeting Ruby are a little vague at first, Ruby’s are crystal clear: she’s there to fuck. She stares at Billy in a way that suggests this is the first time she’s ever had a sexual thought about anyone in her entire life and doesn’t know how to process it.
Viewers may get some escapist fantasy enjoyment out of the characters just throwing all caution to the wind and running away from their problems, but right now those problems seem impossibly small and meaningless.
It takes several episodes before they finally act on their sizzling chemistry, spending a lot of time dancing around the fact that Billy is clearly hiding something, and frustratingly runs hot and cold about whatever it is he feels for Ruby. Ruby has numerous opportunities to change her mind and return to her family, but chooses not to, for reasons which remain unclear, other than some unexplained dissatisfaction with her life. Run is careful to ensure that we don’t feel too sorry for Ruby’s husband, Lawrence (Rich Sommer), who seems less concerned with her emotional well-being than with whether he can still make his weekend tennis lesson, and cuts off her credit cards less than 24 hours after she’s gone.
A TV show with a concept this potentially irritating lives and dies according to its performances, and thank goodness for whoever made the decision to cast Merritt Wever in Run. Selfish, childish, maddeningly indecisive Ruby, played by many other actresses, could be insufferable to spend time with, particularly in the claustrophobic setting of a train, but Wever finds the flawed humanity in her. You want to shake Ruby sometimes, but gently, with love, and then hug her afterward. Gleeson, even though his character rarely seems worth the trouble Ruby puts herself through, also gives a strong, nuanced performance, playing a disgraced motivational speaker who’s incapable of being straightforward and honest, not about his life, and not about himself.
Regrettably, their performances are ill-served by a premise that runs out of steam by the third episode or so, and tries to punch things up with the introduction of Fiona (Archie Panjabi), Billy’s controlling, vindictive assistant/ex-lover, who ultimately becomes a stalker. It’s a contrived, silly suspense thriller twist that nearly brings the show to a standstill, particularly in episode four, when they end up on the same train together. That Billy, who, frankly, is kind of a drip, would have two smart, attractive women in a tizzy over him is a stretch, and a well-worn trope that could stand to be retired, at least for a little while.
Five of the seven episodes of Run were available for critics. By the end of the fifth episode, which features an amusing appearance from Waller-Bridge, whether Ruby will stay with Billy or go back to Lawrence remains unclear. Naturally, she would be better off with neither of them, but also doesn’t seem to have much of an identity beyond wife, mother, or ex-girlfriend. One assumes that some sense of self-identity will magically present itself in the remaining hour, otherwise Ruby’s experience will have been a waste of both her and the audience’s time. Wever’s prickly, complicated performance makes it worth sticking around for a bumpy, often meandering ride.
Run takes off on HBO starting April 12th.