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  1. Arts & Entertainment

Review: Amazon's 'The Collection' lacking refinement in story and fashion design

Mamie Gummer in Amazon’s “The Collection.”
Published Feb. 9, 2017

Paris, 1947. The Nazis are gone and folks want to make Parisian fashion great again.

It sounds like the perfect setting for a haute couture period drama.

Sadly, Amazon's The Collection fails to follow through on its potential and promise, delivering a patch job far from cohesive and often uninspired.

At the center is Paul Sabine (Richard Coyle, whom you may recognize though you won't know from where), who heads up the family fashion house and signs a deal to revitalize Paris fashion after the Nazi occupation. Behind the scenes, the real creative force is his brother, Claude (Tom Riley, Da Vinci's Demons), hiding perhaps because he's gay but more likely because he's a hot mess, dreaming up fashions sporadically and apparently mostly while drunk or high. Lording over them both with a perpetually displeased look is mother Yvette (Frances de la Tour).

Meanwhile belowstairs, seamstress Nina (Jenna Thiam) returns after giving birth in secret, now depressed and constantly trying to run away. Then she's "discovered" by a young American photographer named Billy (Max Deacon), who's shooting the fashion house with a veteran Life magazine journalist who insists there isn't really much of a story here.

Little does he know, of course, that there's far too much of a story crammed into an episode.

There's that whole need-a-fashion-line thing and Paul's making nice with the money involved. There's strain between Paul and his American wife, Helen (Mamie Gummer, The Good Wife), whose connections are said to have kept the place afloat. (How and why are anyone's guess.) There are hints that Paul is trying to keep all manner of sinister things under wraps. There's Claude ending up in a hospital, beat to a pulp but still emotional about his abuser and for a moment dreaming up nun-inspired designs (that don't actually materialize in the two episodes I saw). There's maman insisting the boys get along. There's Nina and Billy all too obviously falling in love. There's simple seamstress-daughter Nina's crises of self-confidence. There are regular folks lashing out at Nina wearing pretty clothes amid war-torn surroundings.

Oh, and who is that dude burying a body and why?

It took me two viewings to even halfway figure that last one out because the pilot flits between disparate plotlines so often that you have no time to process any of it, let alone emotionally connect. Amazon seems to have tweaked the episode after its European debut in September, dropping a plotline about a journalist on trial (though Paul still drives through unexplained rioting crowds) and moving the body burying to the middle rather than the beginning.

It may have helped streamline the debut but certainly didn't fix its identity crisis. All these threads might have been fine woven over a seven-episode season instead of the first episode.

What there is frustratingly little of in all this: fashion. The only memorable dress is Nina's red one that draws the wrong sort of attention, and there's nary a scene of painstaking sewing, just platitudes about what fashion should be and how women want to feel after the war.

You can scarcely blame most of the cast, especially Coyle, who has one of those booming voices that would lend gravitas to the phone book let alone the occasional gem like, "Nothing bold or magnificent is built from fear." Sometimes the portrayals even reach overzealous, like the American characters' frustratingly overwrought accents, particularly Deacon as Billy, sounding more Fran Drescher than Brooklyn.

Instead, fault the writing and direction as The Collection strives for dark and brooding but rarely keeps it up for long. There are several flashes of Paul's ruthlessness, particularly toward Claude, that never seem to flesh out. "He doesn't know what you're really capable of," Gummer as Helen states in an almost laughably serious tone.

In fact, the show gently hints so many times at the terrible things the family did to survive the Nazi occupation that you wonder why they didn't just make that show instead.

Contact Caitlin E. O'Conner at coconner@tampabay.com. Follow @CaitOConner.

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