Untitled Fiction ProjectRelationship dramas are a tricky business. You need only go to a college film festival to see where stories of (in)fidelity can go horribly, horribly awry. Each cylinder has to fire perfectly in sync – the writing, direction and acting – just to make it worthwhile. The bear trap that is melodrama is ridiculously large, and very easy to step into.

Untitled Fiction Project, with a tagline of “Love Bites,” tries hard to keep from crossing that line, but on occasion, does so. Mostly improvised, the writing is left up to director Alonso Mayo and his lead actor and actresses. This tactic provides a bit of Friday Night Lights‘ sense of hyper-realism, with a very Soderbergh approach to the story in question, of James and Georgia happily in love until James is forced to admit an affair, with the other woman intent on keeping him.

With improvisation as the primary writing tool, pacing is another issue, and one that plagues this show particularly in the seven-plus minute pilot. Much of the build-up to James’ confession drags, and feels more like an improv scene one would do at an actors’ workshop off the top of their heads, as opposed to a scene one would prepare for.

Which is not to say the acting is lacking. The talent of leads Jeffrey Casciano (James) and Lauren Plaxco (Georgia), as well as their chemistry, is unmistakable. Jade Warner (the other woman Nicolette) is equally capable with the material, but there’s not enough on her end to justify the gravitational pull that keeps James from completely severing ties. Because of the improv nature, important moments are padded by long stretches of inane “realistic” banter, or worse, restating what was already said as a stalling tactic to prep for the next evolution of the scene. It then becomes the job of the director to pare this down and tighten up, along with reeling the actors in when those intense moments come into play. When we reach the point of raised voices, that’s where the series crosses the line into melodrama.

There’s also something particularly irritating to me about the forced Machiavellian tactics of “the other woman” Nicolette. It could be personal experience, and the fact that, y’know, I’m a dude, but catty manipulation doesn’t play for me. It damages the integrity of the love triangle, which for compelling drama, redeemable qualities in all parties are a must.

Suspension of disbelief is stretched extensively, here, as to the diminished capacity of each character’s moral compass and intelligence. The list of things one can decide to do after the bomb drops runs very, very short, and James’ inability to pick between the loving, supposedly “perfect” fiancee and the manipulative bitch (hot as she is) rings particularly hollow to me.

From the technical side, this is where the documentary style actually plays well. Director Mayo constructs a lot of interesting imagery in mundane settings, with very rich coloring and deep contrast. It certainly looks typical of digitally-shot shows, but it does the job and doesn’t pull you out of the action. The camera’s steady when it needs to be, and Mayo picks his spots to get creative.

However, that doesn’t do enough to make me want to continue watching, and the problems with this series are already ships that have sailed – the other woman is irredeemable, the lead actor alternates between an asshole and a loving fiancee without any real connecting threads between the two sides. It’s as though James is two completely different characters. This sort of love triangle was done perfectly in the (dead on arrival) TV series Lone Star, but no one watched that, so what do I know?

I hate to fault an honest experiment, but the moments in between good drama and a silly, cliched other woman mask the talent at play here. Considering my trade, I’m fully aware that it’s self-serving and obvious for me to say, but a writer — or, alternately, an editor — could have kept this show a bit more focused, kept Nicolette from being mired in every obsessed lover cliche in existence, and prevented this show from becoming —

Win, Fail or Trainwreck: A strong candidate for Trainwreck. People survive the wreck, but it went off the rails nonetheless. They gave it an honest try, and when it works, it works great, but there’s a lack of coherence here, and while looking at the breakdown, there isn’t a definite weakness (beyond the machinations of Nicolette, which are ridiculous) in the craft of the production, but it unravels the longer you watch. As the audience is incredulous that anyone would stay with James, I question why we would stay with a show that can’t decide who their characters are.

With relationship dramas, it’s always going to be dependent on the viewer’s particular perspective and history, so your mileage may vary with this review, but the longer I stayed with these people, even the blameless Georgia, the less I liked them. If that was the point they wanted to make, the case wasn’t strong enough to grab me.

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