‘Sorry for Your Loss’ is the Facebook solace we all deserve

The platform’s grief-centred original drama is painful in a good way

Commissioned by Facebook, paid for by Facebook and available to watch only on Facebook, ‘Sorry for Your Loss’ has been showered with critical acclaim. Photograph:    Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

Commissioned by Facebook, paid for by Facebook and available to watch only on Facebook, ‘Sorry for Your Loss’ has been showered with critical acclaim. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

 

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, Facebook? Perhaps the most important television show of the year – and also one of the best – isn’t technically a television show at all.

Sorry for Your Loss is a classy, sometimes unbearably moving drama starring indie-flick favourite Elizabeth Olsen as Leigh, a young widow reeling from the sudden loss of her husband Matt (Mamoudou Athie), who appears in heartbreaking flashbacks. Created by Kit Steinkellner, it’s a 10-part study of grief: how to endure it, how to be around someone wrapped by it, how it’s there in every moment and probably isn’t going away.

And it’s on Facebook. Indeed, Sorry for Your Loss is not only streaming on Facebook, it is a “Facebook Watch presents” show, debuting on the platform in September and concluding with its final two episodes last week.

This was Facebook, favoured tool of murderous extremists and inspirational quote merchants

Commissioned by Facebook, paid for by Facebook and available to watch only on Facebook, it has been showered with critical acclaim.

What kind of sorcery is this?

Isn’t video content on Facebook all shoddy virals, DIY advertisements and shouty banter-fests? Well, mostly, yes. Even on Facebook Watch, the special video tab introduced in the United States in 2017 and extended globally in August, the line-up is dominated by cheaply produced videos of cute animals, celebrities and cosmetics (thanks for personalised recommendations) sandwiched between stories from news publishers too scared not to be on Facebook.

So at first I was in denial: Sorry for Your Loss couldn’t really be as good as it seemed. How could it be? This was Facebook, favoured tool of murderous extremists and inspirational quote merchants.

And yet for the price of registration details and the bare minimum of disruption from advertisements (two mid-roll ads per half-hour episode, 12 seconds long at most), it seemed it was offering something thoughtful and serious and, crucially, not written by whoever it is who tries to channel those qualities for Mark Zuckerberg’s posts.

Emmy material

Then I wondered if my quality bar for content consumed on a mobile screen was somehow lower than it would be for a bigger screen, or if Sorry for Your Loss merely seemed like Emmy material because I consumed it immediately after burning my eyeballs on some frenetic new mini-originals from rival Snap.

Launched on Snapchat’s Discover tab last week, scripted five-minute-per-episode series like Class of Lies and Co-Ed delight in the split-screen device (exploiting the app’s vertical video format) and are overladen with textual information just as a user-uploaded Snapchat video would be. They’re cast only with young people and intended for them.

Facebook isn’t alone, the number of companies trying to carve a reputation for being a garlanded player in scripted content is bewildering

But as for whether Snap will be successful in luring users back from Facebook-owned Instagram through this grand content plan, well, after half an hour trying to navigate Snapchat as an over-35, I was too angry to care.

For now, the view counts cited underneath each episode of Sorry for Your Loss veer erratically from modest to extremely modest. Everyone I have recommended the series to in person has reacted with mild horror at the thought that there is now another source of high-quality “television” with which to catch up and keep up or make the choice to ignore.

But Facebook can up the ante on its prestige-content strategy any time it wants. Last autumn, it was reported to be allocating $1 billion to original content this year. As far as Watch goes, it is still warming up.

For broadcasters trying to locate every last cent from down the back of the sofa to stay in the game, a development like this must be morale-sapping. At least Netflix doesn’t directly take their advertising revenues as well as their audience.

Facebook isn’t alone in the effort either: in 2018, the sheer number of companies trying to carve a reputation for being a garlanded player in scripted content, or at least using scripted content as loss leaders for other commercial activity, is bewildering.

‘Sorry for Your Loss’ is a classy, sometimes unbearably moving drama starring Mamoudou Athie and Elizabeth Olsen. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
‘Sorry for Your Loss’ is a classy, sometimes unbearably moving drama starring Mamoudou Athie and Elizabeth Olsen. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Select all

Facebook only makes an appearance within the narrative of Sorry for Your Loss once. Deciding to send impromptu party invitations using her Facebook friends list, Leigh clicks on “select all” rather than pass over her late husband’s avatar. The script instead depends on phone calls, voicemails, text messages and offscreen contact, including a face-to-face support group.

It notably contains no scene in which a bereaved person is tormented by a tactless algorithm regurgitating old posts from years ago with the claim “your memories are important to us”. Nothing here suggests that technology has contributed to social isolation, nor is it seen as any kind of saviour.

Facebook has very smartly funded a drama that disregards its own power and influence, while remaining 100 per cent on-brand.

It hardly makes up for its own constant tweeness, the whole fake-news business or Cambridge Analytica, but there was a point, early on, when I accepted I was no longer only watching its latest creation only for research purposes – far from it.

Facebook can have this one: Sorry for Your Loss is lovely art. The awards are in the post.