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The New Look_Ben Mendelsohn_Apple TV.jpg

How Can a Series With as Much Going for It as 'The New Look' Be This Dull?

By Kaleena Rivera | TV | February 21, 2024 |

By Kaleena Rivera | TV | February 21, 2024 |

The New Look_Ben Mendelsohn_Apple TV.jpg

While The New Look opens in 1955, most of the first three episodes take place in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Toward the beginning of episode two, up-and-coming fashion designer Christian Dior (Ben Mendelsohn) is distressed over the fate of his sister, Catherine (Maisie Williams), a member of the French Resistance who has just been captured by the Gestapo. The scant bit of news he’s received is grim; she’s being held at a location infamous for their cruel means of extracting names and locations of fellow Resistance members, where she will likely be killed even if she does provide the information they seek. As Christian frets, agonizing over his inability to protect his baby sister, we cut away to scenes of Catherine who is, as promised, being viciously tortured.

I only wish I gave a damn.

Let me be clear: I care greatly about the real-life events that provide the inspiration for this historic drama created by Todd A. Kessler, who co-created the likes of Damages and Bloodline. The war and persecution embarked on by the Nazi regime, resulting in millions of lives lost, including six million Jewish people, is an endless collection of horror stories that make up a dark period that should always remain near the surface of our collective memory. Too bad what occurs on screen feels so far removed from that specific era that if one were to switch out the repeated use of the villainous identifier label “Nazis” for, say, “Decepticons,” there would be almost no impact on the series thus far.

It’s a shame since I had no idea that the real-life Catherine Dior went through this ordeal, eventually transported to the horrific Ravensbrück woman’s camp, where she underwent additional torture and forced labor before her release a year later. My (albeit brief) research into her life evoked more emotion than her plight depicted on screen, through no fault of Williams. She works gamely to portray Catherine’s brave resolve both before and during her experience. It would probably be effective if it weren’t for the fact that she’s never on screen for longer than a minute or two at a time thanks to what I grew to call, “The Chanel Show.”

For many of us, the knowledge that fashion icon Coco Chanel worked closely with the Nazis is relatively new, having been widely shared over the past decade or so. The New Look depicts Chanel’s (played by Juliette Binoche) involvement, not as a calculating conspirator but rather a series of unfortunate events, blundered into much like the visual gag featuring Sideshow Bob stepping on one rake after another. Initially, I was curious to see a potentially nuanced portrayal of her story, not from a desire to excuse her actions as much as people who do terrible things often do it for more complicated reasons beyond mere villainy. But as her involvement gets deeper, beginning first with a romantic relationship with a Nazi agent dubbed Spatz (Claes Bang) to a scheme involving Winston Churchill, the more her “who, me?” act begins to wear thin, a problem not because it’s unrealistic for people to downplay their culpability (even to themselves) but because it quickly grows boring.

The most aggravating thing is that by the end of three episodes, at nearly an hour apiece, we know next to nothing about Christian Dior himself. Mendelsohn, more restrained than usual here, tries to play a man wracked with the internal conflict that comes with trying to survive a terrible situation while wrestling with the guilt of staying away from the front lines of the skirmish. Unfortunately, there’s so little for him to do, aside from the aforementioned fretting, that he seems like a cameo in a B-plot as opposed to a series headliner.

Thus far, The New Look reminds me of a classier take on Ryan Murphy’s Feud anthology: not nearly as silly but also less panache. The price of dealing with a script that’s this insistent on gripping the audience’s hand should, at the very least, treat us to some flair, especially in the visual sense — in fairness, holding back on the ins and outs of the glamorous world of couture when the main clientele are Nazi wives is a sensible decision, though early reviews imply this trend continues over the season, which is a waste. But what this show is really missing is passion for the figures at the center of this drama, each of whom is so abbreviated that they can be fully summarized in a few words (the sole exception being Emily Mortimer, who gets more emotional landscape to explore in twenty minutes of screen time than any of her costars do with several hours’ worth of material). Despite the promise in both the production value and cast, The New Look is, sadly, a boring look at one of fashion’s greatest innovators in one of history’s most harrowing times.

Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. When she isn’t having to take to the internet for insight on Dior (this documentary on a recent exhibit is quite lovely), she can be found on Bluesky or Twitter.