Hulu and HBO Both Want Candy
Did you really murder a housewife with an ax if two streaming services don't make a series about it?
You ever have a really good idea? A Kris-Jenner-works-hard-but-the-devil-works-harder-level banger idea? Only to find out that someone with unlimited money and resources had the same one and is on the way to making it a sparkling reality? The heartbreak!
This is how I felt when I learned, after launching this newsletter, that Vanity Fair has a podcast called Still Watching , and I imagine it’s how the producers at Hulu felt when they discovered HBO was also making a scripted miniseries about Candy Montgomery.
There was something marvelous about watching this collective déjà vu unfold in real time. Hulu’s Candy aired in May 2022, starring Jessica Biel and Melanie Lynskey, and depicted the real-life 1980 ax murder of Wylie, Texas-resident Betty Gore (who Lynskey plays in the show). The news story became a national sensation in large part because of the murderer: a popular and fragile housewife named Candy Montgomery (played by Biel).
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The story had everything: blood, affairs, psychoanalysis, twists, and incredible names like Alan and Betty Gore and Candy. It was a classic life-is-stranger-than-fiction tale, and so it’s no wonder Hollywood keeps coming back to it. In 1990, a straight-to-television movie called A Killing in a Small Town first brought Candy to the small screen. And then 30 years later, feeding our insatiable desire for suburban bloodshed, Hulu’s Candy told the story again. But at a cool five-episode jaunt, and debuting at the same time as Hulu’s more captivating true crime show Under the Banner of Heaven, Candy never made it into the collective consciousness. It didn’t have the staying power of something like Mare of Easttown. Not enough vaping, me thinks.
Then nearly a year later, HBO dropped a trailer for a new show with a star-studded cast: Love & Death. The plot, based loosely on a true story, was all too familiar. But this time Elizabeth Olsen and Lily Rabe would have their turn depicting the tragic pair of frenemies.
I watched, with a twinge of sadistic glee, as the confused comments rolled in under the trailer posted on Instagram. “Didn’t we already watch this?” “Hulu already did this!” Jessica Biel even posted a blood splattered selfie along with a screengrab of Olsen in her Candy get-up with the caption “Can’t wait to watch #ElizabethOlsen KILL in this role.” But I know Miss Timberlake did not put that silly wig on just to be outshone by tag-along-tot Lizzie Olsen (a diss track for the ages).
This is not the first time real life events have spawned dueling on-screen retellings in close succession. Emma Corrin and Kristen Stewart both tried their hand at Princess Diana in 2021. Most people have forgotten that Ashton Kutcher played Steve Jobs before Michael Fassbender got the Oscar nom in 2016 (but Kutcher’s pancreas has likely still not forgiven him). Jennifer Lawrence backed out of playing Elizabeth Holmes in Apple’s Bad Blood after seeing Amanda Seyfred’s portrayal of the disgraced entrepreneur in Hulu’s The Dropout, saying “Yeah, we don’t need to redo that.’ She did it.” No such luck for our brother-kissing babygirl Mary Camden. (What’s worse, Kutcher getting snubbed after drinking so much carrot juice he got pancreatitis or Biel having to watch Olsen keep her cute wavy bob and still undoubtedly bag that Emmy nom?)
There are some who roll their eyes at these duplicate adaptions. They ask, without really expecting an answer, Where has the originality in Hollywood gone? Is this all we can come up with? But to me there’s something fun about getting more than one. As viewers, we get to compare and contrast what showrunners viewed as necessary to the story, and guess at what has been completely made up or twisted in the name of good TV. It underlines the idea that storytellers can be merciless butchers of the actual truth in the name of getting at a larger truth. So what do Candy and Love & Death really have to say?
First of all, I would never pit two queens against each other. I once saw Jessica Biel in the flesh on the floor of a Justin Timberlake concert (I know. I know. Drafting my notes app apology to Janet Jackson and Britney Spears as we speak) and she is even more gorgeous in real life, so I appreciate her constantly drenching herself in blood just to even the scales for the rest of us. And although my alliances are strictly to the oldest child in the birth order (Conhead till I die), I can’t help but root for the little sister to end all little sisters, Lizzie Olsen. Anyone who can cackle like that while casually dunking Danielle Haim into next Tuesday, I will follow until the ends of the Marvel cinematic universe.
In Love & Death, Olsen expertly plays a woman on the verge of a mental breakdown, with those long stares into the camera, her smile holding back a violent and tragic boredom. She’s giving a Glenn Close-level performance sure to win her all the awards recognition she deserves.
On the other hand, Biel is giving…Biel. There is no pair of granny spectacles large enough to hide her inherent Hollywood glow. But still, there’s something about Biel that makes for a more convincing Candy Montgomery. Maybe it’s knowing she’s no stranger to infidelity, or knowing she’s a little anti-vax (you know Candy would have been both-sides-ing). Despite her beauty, Biel’s parochial soccer mom vibe fits the profile of a woman who picked up her new lover at a church volleyball game.
Candy may have beaten a woman to a bloody pulp and had no qualms with sleeping with her friend’s husband — but she’s not as unlikable as she should be. All of these become crimes that we as an audience can forgive (in an era of supporting women’s rights and their wrongs) and while this relies in part on Biel and Olsen’s charisma, the other characters in the story have to drive it home. Who each network chose to play Alan and Betty Gore could tell you everything about what kind of story they were trying to tell.
Despite being one half of my favorite celebrity couple of all time, I’ve always been a little perplexed by Mr. Dunst, I mean Jesse Plemons, who plays Alan Gore, the other half of Candy’s extra-marital affair in HBO’s Love & Death. Some might say he has a quiet vulnerability, and I see the quiet part. I might need a film bro to explain the second half. To me he is the human form of the board game Monopoly, but I will respectfully defer to Miss Dunst’s vision. In spite of (or perhaps because of) this inscrutability, Plemons’ chemistry with Olsen is palpable. Love & Death paints Candy and Alan as star-crossed, trapped in marriages they can’t make work, but can’t let go of either.
Hulu’s Candy, on the other hand, casts Pablo Schreiber, who looks much more like the real life Alan Gore and doesn’t have the same pillsbury doughboy je ne sais quoi of Plemons — although objectively I see the appeal of both in gym shorts. Schreiber and Biel don’t have the intimacy built up between Plemons and Olsen, and this seems intentional. Their affair is displayed as transactional and calculated. It serves to make Biel’s Candy a little less likable, not desperate for connection — just plain old selfish.
Candy’s casting of Yellowjackets’ Melanie Lynskey doesn’t help Montgomery’s case either. While both shows illustrate that Betty Gore wasn’t exactly easy to love, Lynskey’s forte is turning an unlikable heroine into at the very least, a gay icon. Betty first appears in Candy as she’s unleashing all her anxieties on Alan before he leaves for a work trip. And although the audience might get bogged down by the negativity (which Lynskey wears as effortlessly as Adam Sandler wears parachute-sized basketball shorts), it’s also easy to feel sorry for her. Meanwhile, American Horror Story’s Lily Rabe appears sexlessly thrusting her husband’s penis inside of her hoping it will make them another baby. I’m sure Rabe is a blast in real life, but I’ve never seen her in a role where she comes off as warm.
Aside from Rabe’s Betty, everyone in Love & Death is a little sweetand doughy (except Tom Pelphrey’s spray-tanned Don Crowder, who seems to be auditioning for a role as a Ken doll in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie). Seeing Jesse Plemons name next to a “Jesus Saves” cross and electrical towers in the opening credits... I half expected to see Landry Clarke catching a football in the next shot. Love and Death exists in the Friday Night Lights universe, albeit with a bigger budget: It depicts a wholesome Texas town where the churches are big, the diners are classic and the grass fields are sprawling. There’s a lot of scenery to chew on in the HBO show which spared no expense, with Nina Simone needle drops, roller coasters and sequined dance routines in Euphoria lighting.
Meanwhile Candy, lit like a Best Western, is economical. It doesn’t go too deep into the nitty gritty of Candy’s affair, or even her childhood trauma. Where it does elaborate, actually, is on Betty Gore’s inner life — something Love & Death has yet to dive into, although there are still two episodes left.
There’s also something a tad unserious about Candy, maybe in part because Lynskey and Biel cast their real life husbands in the show as a pair of doofus cops investigating the murder. They love a man with a job and I cannot fault them for that!
But the high camp of Timberlake’s itty bitty bangs aside, there’s a gravity to Candy. The series starts with the aftermath of the murder, Gore’s abandoned baby’s piercing screams echoing in our ears like sirens. And as a result, everything is in the shadow of Betty Gore. As Candy tells the courtroom in a later episode, “I hit her. I didn’t even think about it, I hit her,” the court’s parlor of viewers evaporates and Betty, in her best Sunday dress, stands in the aisle looking skeptical. “That’s your story,” she says.
Love & Death takes a more chronological route, where it’s easier to give Candy the benefit of the doubt. And maybe that’s okay too. I remember being engrossed in Candy when I watched it last year, but after following Olsen’s and Plemon’s love affair for the last few weeks, I returned to the Hulu show and found it a bit lackluster, despite still believing Biel and Lynskey’s version feels more plausible. Sometimes sticking closer to reality can’t compete with that HBO razzle dazzle.
At the end of the day, the real life Candy Montgomery was never found guilty of a crime, poor Betty Gore has been feeding maggots six-feet under for over 40 years, and none of this really matters. May the best cunt win!
What is a song that you discovered through a TV show’s soundtrack?
Mallika’s answer: In middle school I told everyone my favorite band was Sum 41. Was it true? Of course not. But when Gossip Girl played “With Me” while Blair and Chuck first hooked up in the back of his limo, preteen me was like this is love, baby! I still listen to that song, but I can now admit Sum 41 is not my favorite band.
Rachel’s answer: Ok, I have this distinct childhood memory of watching a rerun of Dawson’s Creek on TBS in which the song “Just the Girl” by Click Five plays while Pacey watches Joey walk up the boardwalk. I have sworn up and down for years that I discovered that timeless bop through its perfect encapsulation of the Pacey/Joey enemies-to-lovers arc: She laughs at my dreams, but I dream about her laughter !!! Shakespeare couldn’t sum those two up better!! But I just looked it up, and it turns out that would be impossible. The show ended in 2003 and “Just the Girl” came out in 2005. I somehow completely made that up. So while I’m processing this earth-shattering revelation, I guess I’ll just say that LeiKeli47’s “Mulita” has gotten my ass up the Broadway Junction staircase on multiple occasions, so thank you Insecure for introducing me to that song. And thank you Apple Music shuffle for having my back in times of need.
Unfortunately we made so much fun of The CW in last week’s issue that the network is shutting down. Kind of. There will still be a “CW” but most shows have been cancelled since Nexstar bought a majority stake in the network. (Speaking of The CW, absolutely nuts that the Gossip Girl’s instagram thought it was ok to post something that could have interpreted as teasing to another reboot when in reality it was just so that they could follow up with a post about HBO Max becoming Max. That’s not news, honey! No one cares!)
A senior citizen season of The Bachelor is on the way and will be titled The Golden Bachelor. Considering ABC acted like Clare Crawley was on her death bed while filming The Bachelorette when she was 38, we thought they already did this.
Patricia Clarkson is back on screen as a distant mother which means it’s time to open up HBO and rewatch Sharp Objects.
Love & Death really did something, casting Patrick Fugit of Almost Famous fame as Pat Montgomery. You can just imagine him clenching his little fists and screaming “Sweet? Where do you get off? Where do you get sweet? I am dark and mysterious, and I am PISSED OFF!”