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Love & Death on ITVX review: Elizabeth Olsen shines but did we really need another show about this true crime?

 (ITV/ HBO Max)
(ITV/ HBO Max)

It’s been a good year for lovers of true crime; specifically, this true crime. In 1980, Candy Montgomery attacked her ex-lover’s wife Betty with a wood splitting axe, striking her a total of 41 times and killing her. This was followed by a sensationalised trial that gripped the nation (and spawned two TV shows): a suburban housewife, killing another suburban housewife? Shocking!

Actually, not that shocking. Because Love & Death makes suburbia sound like hell. When we meet this version of Candy (ably played by Elizabeth Olsen), she’s a member of the church choir, a diligent mother to her two children, and 100 per cent taken for granted by her husband Pat. She takes a writing class; he brays like a donkey when he watches the TV. Every. Single. Night.

Enter Allan Gore (Jesse Plemons). He’s married to Betty, another frustrated housewife who spends most of her time either clinically depressed or raging – and though Candy doesn’t really find him handsome, “he smells like sex.”

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One night, she hops into his car and proposes a casual fling. “It’s just something I’ve been thinking about so I want to say it, so I don’t have to think about it anymore,” she says, with admirable nonchalance. Allan is gobsmacked – but soon, they’re going at it like two horny teenagers, and from there, things unfold with depressing inevitability.

Part of the reason this series works as well as it does is its star. Olsen, with her huge expressive eyes, ably continues her streak of playing homicidal, frustrated mothers (her last one, the Marvel Universe’s Wanda had superpowers; what a relief that Candy does not).

Her take on the character is more subtle than you might expect. This Candy is yearning for some sort of purpose beyond her humdrum life. “‘My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue. A wonderous woven magic.’ Now, I haven’t a clue what she’s talking about, but I want it,” she tells an uncomprehending Pat quoting Carole King’s song Tapestry. “I want my royal hue.” Watching it, it’s hard not to feel some sort of sympathy – that is, until she gets the axe out.

Elizabeth Olsen and Jesse Plemons as Candy and Allan (ITV/ HBO Max)
Elizabeth Olsen and Jesse Plemons as Candy and Allan (ITV/ HBO Max)

Perhaps in order to reflect the mundanity of Candy’s life, creator David E Kelley takes things at a snail’s pace for the first three episodes. Don’t come here expecting sensationalist thrills: what we get instead is a slow dissection of Candy’s disaffection, her search for excitement and her deep loneliness. “It’s not even like I’m gonna miss the sex,” she tells a friend as her tryst begins to near its end. “It’s the friendship. Allan’s been like my best friend.”

Given the first three episodes are glacial in their slowness (read: a bit boring), it’s quite a contrast to Disney+’s Candy, which trod the same ground earlier this year. That starred Jessica Biel as the lead and leaned heavily into the more salacious elements of the crime. That said, when things kick off in Love & Death, they really kick off: there’s blood sprayed all over the walls, disgusting sound effects and trial by media to contend with, which makes for quite a bit of tonal whiplash. Too much, in fact, and there’s a sense that the seven-episode series could have been condensed with the juicier stuff packed in earlier.

Plus, as the charismatic Olsen sucks all the attention in with her performance, everybody else suffers as a result – especially Betty. She’s the victim, but she comes across as shrill, nagging and mentally unstable in contrast. By the time the murder happens, you’re almost willing Candy on – not ideal, and it leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Love and Death is streaming on ITVX from September 7