“Love & Death” gets a warm welcome in its hometown at its SXSW premiere

South by Southwest attendees got their first look at David E. Kelley’s limited series, which tells the true story of Candy Montgomery (Elizabeth Olsen).

In the opening hours of David E. Kelley’s Love & Death, Allan Gore (Jesse Plemons) says that all of life is a competition. Everyone has to compete – even just a little – to give everything a dangerous edge. As a South by Southwest Audience Award contender, “Love & Death” is actually competing with its premiere episode, which debuted at this festival on Saturday to a lively audience.

“We’re incredibly excited to be here,” executive producer and director Lesli Linka Glatter told the audience before the premiere of Episode 1. He called SXSW “the perfect place to debut our show. We got here, it’s a Texas story, I’m a Texas man.”

“Love & Death” tells the true story of Candy Montgomery (Elizabeth Olsen), who had an affair with Gore starting in 1978 and ended up killing his wife Betty (Lily Rabe) with an ax. The series is based on the book “Evidence of Love” by Jim Atkinson and John Bloom and the “Texas Monthly” articles sent to the executive producers when they happened to be looking for a new project.

“It was too juicy to pass up,” Kelley said in a brief Q&A following the screening. “The story was so juicy and the characters were complex and human. It’s not often you find a nostalgic, warm, social series that ends with an ax murder. When I read the articles and the book, I was blown away.”

A man and a woman sit in a church pew;  still from it "Love and Death"

Lily Rabe and Jesse Plemons in Love & Death


Despite the grim subject matter, the premiere of the series was mostly met with laughter. Before it turns sinister, the dynamic between the many characters is awkward, plain and simple, leading to hilariously tense beats and pregnant pauses thanks to Kelley’s writing and the performances of Olsen, Plemons, Rabe and Patrick Fugit as Candy’s husband. The first episode paints a portrait of all-American comfort and contentment – which Candy, after an accidental brush with Allan, begins to see as a bad thing. Olsen and Glatter described Candy and other characters as having a “deep hole” in them, and that emptiness becomes unsettling as the episodes progress.

It will be interesting to see how this series differs from Hulu’s “Candy,” which premiered last year. At the premiere of “Love and Death,” no one mentioned the other show, which stars Jessica Biel and Melanie Lynskey, but the different take on the infamous murder is certainly comparable.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with (David) a few times, and for other characters, there’s no problem,” Rabe said when asked about developing Betty, despite her less central role in the first episode. “I just haven’t had the experience I’ve ever had, I’ve never played any of the women he’s written. Everyone is on the road and struggling. I think Betty is sinking, but she’s trying to stay afloat and doing her best. There is a lot of heart in the relationship. It’s not about failed marriages, it’s about so much more.”

After the premiere and Q&A, the audience got to see the full trailer for the first time, which teases later episodes After Betty’s death and immersed in Candy’s lawsuit. Kelley described the seven-episode run as “three shows in one.” Although Episode 1 is only the beginning of the case, Glatter worked closely with Olsen and Plemons to make each interaction, each beat of the relationship, feel like momentum. He then emphasized the creative commitment to “being true to the story and the characters and having empathy for everyone, for humanity.”

“There’s a terrible true crime at the heart of it, but we didn’t want it to be just a true crime story,” he said. “Things are not what they seem, (and) we have to go deeper to see what’s really going on.”

Love & Death premieres April 27 on HBO Max.

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