Review: The Flat Mystery of Steven Soderbergh's 'Mosaic' Isn't Helped by App Trickery
The app for Steven Soderbergh’s new project with HBO, Mosaic has been on my phone over a month. I just finished the approximately 8 hours of programming last night. LATE last night, after a dedicated push to finish it. While I was initially intrigued by the premise, I got the sense early on that the project ended up more about the format than the story and it began to show pretty quickly. Besides which, up until last week I could only watch the “show” on my phone as far as I was aware. A small iPhone 6S screen is great for a lot of things, but viewing an intricate mystery that includes “discovery” pop-ups nestled in the bottom right corner of the screen is not one of them. Still, I made it through and all I can think of is what I wish was different. I will do my best to avoid spoilers below, but I will speculate on how the format of a mystery and the premise of a paired app and television viewing experience could be better utilized. In doing so, I may end up giving clues as to the direction of Mosaic’s story. You’ve been warned.
Probably the most frustrating thing about Mosaic is that despite the appearance of different “threads” to follow, there is just one story. This isn’t a “choose your own adventure” format as much as it is “hey, you can read some chapters out of order!” and it’s certainly not the same thing. The format of the app gives you a “story map” but trying to watch a specific “thread” rather than across threads just ends up jumbling the story. Frustratingly, no matter if you watch threaded stories or try to stay within the overall timeline, you will end up watching a lot of scenes multiple times. I understand it’s done to present slightly different perspectives of the scenes, but there’s a few scene that I saw three separate times while watching through. And not in a way where I saw the scene once all the way through, and then saw the intro to the scene in a different vignette, the ENTIRE SCENE would be replayed all the way through in identical fashion. While you’re watching, “discoveries” will pop up in the lower left hand corner of the screen. At best, these were distractions that added a small amount of context to the scene. At worst, one completely spoiled me on a development that was the conclusion to two other vignettes I had yet to watch.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the project is that it appears the six-episode series on HBO is just going to be a retread of the story in the app, going through the same scenes that are presumably now edited together in a more linear format. That means as someone who watched through the app, I have no reason to watch the series. Anyone who watches the series has no reason to use the app. From a marketing perspective, this feels phenomenally dumb. Why not use the app to catalog the backstories of the characters leading up to the crime and the series to tell the story of the crime and how it’s solved? Why not release new content to the app as the show goes on, giving viewers notifications for “discoveries” that they could view real time or choose to review after the episode? There are a lot of ways a project like this could make excellent use of tying a show to mobile technology, and Mosaic seems to explore none of it. This is not breaking new ground in storytelling. It’s maybe breaking new ground in editing.
The story may be more satisfying in a six-episode series, as some of these complaints won’t apply. The same scenes won’t play out multiple times and bonus scenes in the app will simply be cut to in the show in a way that feels less disruptive. I am most curious to see if the mystery feels more compelling on screen. On the app, I ended up feeling less interested in the twists and turns of the unraveling and more frustrated that yet MORE possibilities were coming up just when it felt like I was getting to the end. The series also seems to suffer from the problem of dumping the most interesting characters early on, while letting less interesting characters carry the investigation forward. For those of you who haven’t used the app, I’ll be curious to see if you have the same complaints watching the show.