Damien Chazelle might be a bit of a cornball. The youngest Best Director winner in Oscar history has just one feature that could be categorized as cynical: Whiplash. And even Whiplash is the story of something Chazelle deeply, sincerely loves—jazz—getting desecrated by pointless machismo, his true passion underlying and fortifying the poison. La La Land keeps the subject matter but switches the tone to straightforward romance. First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic Chazelle directed from a script by Josh Singer, is a subversion a little too subtle for its own good, adding psychological layers to historical hero worship but keeping the foundation intact.
Perhaps this is why, despite being young, talented, and successful, Chazelle is not exactly cool. The economics of awards season—not to mention a certain employee of accounting firm Ernst & Young—did him no favors by creating a false choice between La La Land and eventual Best Picture winner Moonlight. But more than three years after the epochal Oscar fiasco, Chazelle has never quite recovered from the impression that his oeuvre represents the institutional old guard to his peers’ exciting insurrection, despite being a member of the same generation. Part of that has to do with demographics, but mostly it’s about sensibility. Chazelle likes what he likes, without irony or apology. And what he likes are jazz and stories about complicated men.
Chazelle’s first foray into television isn’t written or even created by him, but considering the marketing and subject matter, audiences can be forgiven for assuming otherwise. Eight-part Netflix miniseries The Eddy is largely overseen by British playwright and screenwriter Jack Thorne, but Chazelle executive produced and directed the first two episodes. (The auteur will theoretically have more control over a mysterious project for Apple TV+, which there haven’t been any updates on since its announcement in January 2018.) On paper, The Eddy is far more squarely in Chazelle’s wheelhouse than Thorne’s, whose diverse CV ranges from Skins to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Named for a fictional modern-day Parisian jazz club, The Eddy is structured loosely like an anthology, with every episode centered on a different character drifting in and around its central location. Still, the protagonist is unmistakably Elliot (André Holland), the venue’s brilliant but difficult co-owner. Sound familiar?
Because The Eddy runs for eight hours instead of two—possibly more, including Chazelle’s pair of 70-minute installments—it needs a plot to string together its disparate portraits of Parisian artistes. (Subsequent episodes are helmed by Houda Benyamina, Laila Marrakchi, and Alan Poul.) By pilot’s end, Elliot’s business partner Farid (Tahar Rahim) has been murdered outside the club. Both Elliot and Farid were musicians first, but Farid had taken on business and operations while Elliot concerned himself with managing the house band toward a potential record deal. Shockingly, it turns out that Farid may not have stayed entirely above board while Elliott kept himself in willful ignorance.
But as The Eddy goes on, the manufactured suspense starts to feel like a distraction from where its heart really lies. It feels a little cheap to apply musical metaphors to the man who made a catchphrase out of “not my tempo,” yet The Eddy often seems to be forcing itself into a sped-up rhythm that’s … not quite its tempo, or at least not one where it seems fully at ease. When it slows down and makes room for the free-form improvisation that defines its central pursuit, The Eddy attains the sort of coordinated chaos jazz musicians strive to create. The price of admission is the occasional, discordant off note.
The Paris of The Eddy is not the Paris of The Devil Wears Prada, or Sex and the City, or any number of white American fantasies that cast the City of Lights as a glitzy, polished capital of fashion and commerce. It’s not even the namesake of Midnight in Paris, celebrated more for its past than its lived reality. This Paris is diverse, more than a little dirty, and above all, a place where people actually lead their lives, not a staged background for some visiting foreigner’s self-discovery. Elliot is an American expat, but he’s surrounded himself with a coalition of fellow lost souls who’ve embraced the city as their own: singer Maja (Cold War’s Joanna Kulig), a Polish firebrand; bassist Jude (Damian Nueva), a recovering addict; aspiring songwriter Sim (Adil Dehbi), one of many Muslims kept on society’s margins by French prejudice; Elliot’s semi-estranged daughter Julie (Amandla Stenberg), shipped off by his ex at exactly the wrong time.
The Eddy believes, deeply and convincingly, in the chosen family of artists. Its best sequences, often set to original music from Glen Ballard and Randy Kerber, show the transcendence its characters have deemed worth the tradeoff of a more conventionally stable life. Farid’s funeral, in the third episode, moves through every phase of music as catharsis: the joy of celebrating a life lived, the agony of letting go. Chazelle sets a precedent for kinetic, disorienting camerawork that’s easy to parody, but effectively conveys the vitality of the social set he’s chosen to depict. The visual style is designed to pair with music, but carries over into the texture of the ensemble’s everyday life, from congregants gathered in a mosque to teenagers milling around a schoolyard.
La La Land, modeled as it is after Technicolor musicals, is self-consciously artificial. The Eddy, by contrast, is equally committed to naturalism. Chazelle may be consistent in his interests, but he’s adaptable in his approach, which dovetails with the lived-in performances and easy chemistry he elicits from the cast. Holland, Stenberg, and Kulig are the standouts, though they’re forced to fight an uphill battle against the flat archetypes they’re assigned: the imperious, emotionally withholding man who can’t ask for help; the rebellious, precocious teen who reflexively acts out; the tempestuous singer torn between artistic integrity and selling out. That their characters come through as textured individuals is a testament to the cast. That it’s such a struggle reflects poorly on the script.
Characterization aside, The Eddy’s greatest handicap is its unnecessary genre notes, which impose structure on a story that desperately wants to be free-form. The crime that becomes an inciting incident, the mystery of who did it, the strain of mob toughs and sneering cops who pressure Elliot from the margins—all of it is designed to add tension and momentum to a show that doesn’t need either. While watching The Eddy, I kept wanting it to give into the show it clearly wants to be, and already half is: a collection of short stories about people brought together by a shared creative pursuit, nothing else to tie them together except their overarching theme. Farid’s death and its fallout are intended to catalyze The Eddy’s joyous hangout, but the two aspects end up at cross-purposes.
Like its independent-minded artistes, The Eddy is at its finest when it’s working without apology. These actors and this world are absorbing enough that audiences would surely want to spend time with them without the dangled hook of a whodunnit looming over the season. Chazelle’s areas of enthusiasm may not be trendy, and Paris may not be the global epicenter of culture it once was. But for a few hours, at least, The Eddy is vivid enough to make it so. If only it could trust in its own powers of persuasion.