What is Mosaic, Steven Soderbergh's game-like interactive TV show?

8 months ago by Brock Wilbur

It's airing on HBO later this month, but you can 'play' the whole thing right now on your phone or tablet.

I went to film school. Let’s just get that out of the way right from the start. It might be obvious in the text that follows, but disclosure is important. I went to film school and I learned how to thumb my nose, but I also missed a lot of the base skill sets that I should really mastered before I learned to thumb said nose. That’s made director Steven Soderbergh frustratingly important to me in recent years.

The guy behind A Scanner Darkly and all the good films George Clooney has ever appeared in has experienced a couple of different career acts, more recently in television. Both seasons of The Girlfriend Experience have been fascinating expansions upon a feature film experiment. Perhaps more importantly to the technically minded amongst us, The Knick featured Soderbergh stepping into a role as an editor and sharing his experiences in editing -- episode by episode -- with viewers via his online editor journal. This often included sharing network editing notes, which is an unparalleled peek behind the curtain for film nerds to both the process but also watching a famous filmmaker learn the craft in real time.

The Knick was perhaps the clearest indication of what was coming next. Because no one gets obsessed with editing without also wanting to break all the rules and do something new. In this case, Soderbergh has stolen the fire of the gods and handed it to viewers or, more subtly, borrowed the idea of the first Twine game he played.

Mosaic is Soderbergh’s new show for HBO. Later this month, the show will release as a six-part limited series which features Garrett Hedlund, Frederick Weller, Beau Bridges, Paul Reubens, Jennifer Ferrin, Devin Ratray, Michael Cerveris, James Ransone, Jeremy Bobb and Maya Kazan. The show is an experiment in technology serving the story rather than prioritizing the tech first. The director envisions it as a more elegant Choose Your Own Adventure. Is he calling out David Cage directly? No, we aren’t that lucky.

Mosaic is available as an app right now, which is free and on all platforms. No one seems to be talking about this, which is a weird shame, because it is a storytelling app that gives the viewer their own control over all the story and footage from the mystery show Soderbergh has put together. Nothing here was built to service the technology; it is instead a very open story with open interpretations, which any user can intuitively combine into a satisfying story.

The twist here is that you should really “play” Mosaic right now, because the show airing in January is Soderbergh’s edit. Again: there’s a chance to make your own version of this mystery and draw your own conclusions by interacting with the experience on your devices now. In a few weeks, Soderbergh will share his vision of the final product with the TV audience. So this is your chance to see what you can make from all of this without having the influence of the creator.

Look, if you don’t think that’s cool, it is at least one of a kind.

The company behind the technology, PodOp, has revealed that they used at least 14 patented tech innovations to create this, involving everything from script-management software to data-mining to editing systems. How does this play out on the user side? Surprisingly simple. Surprisingly minimal. And almost totally in service to the story.

Here’s the gist. There’s a town in Utah where something goes amiss. Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone) is a famous children’s book author who has money to burn, a beautiful property, a lot of land, and other things that make wealthy people wealthy. There’s a guy named Eric who is her suitor who may have come into her life as part of a plot to steal her money within a larger conspiracy, but love makes him confess his misdeeds. There’s also an aspiring artist named Joel who works blue collar gigs to make ends meet.

Somehow, on New Year’s Eve, Olivia disappears and almost everyone at her end of the year party is a suspect, especially these two dudes. Joel and Eric mark the fork in the story and following one or the other opens up different threads for how to follow this, but each character also comes with their own versions of events which betray them both as unreliable narrators. From here, we meet new characters who have their own perspectives and so on. The divides aren’t as large or grand as you might expect -- this isn’t Soderbergh: A Telltale Series. Rather, this is Steven Soderbergh’s Mystery on the Sundance Express. It feels almost as if fate stepped in and made this happen because it should’ve already existed.

The experience of Mosaic is so much better, and seemingly more complicated, than I expected. You enter this very Fargo style mystery that is built heavily on character development, weird asides, and just far more information that you probably need. My first surprise was just how annoyingly beautifully it has been shot and rendered. Mosaic doesn’t just throw up all its rough footage and ask you to play editor. This is a fully realized show that has an extra ten hours of footage that watchers of the mini-series will probably not encounter. These are long, brilliant scenes intercut with interior monologues, flashbacks, or even metaphorical clues to what is happening in the darkness behind the scenes.

Mosaic doesn’t just throw up all its rough footage and ask you to play editor. This is a fully realized show.

It’s also disarmingly funny. As much as it is about regional police politics versus the art world and expected classism, it’s also about the frustration of amateur sleuths ruining the prosecution of the crime they’re trying to uncover, while also failing to put together a reasonable timeline involving a drunken sex-night that they may or may not have fallen into.

Loudon Wainwright III and Paul Reubens are also here. They’re just… here. Why wouldn’t they be.

The process of watching the show and delving into these sub-elements is far less distracting than I once feared. HBO Go has tried for some time to insert bonus material asides with its shows, to varying degrees of success. Clicking away from Game of Thrones to read chapters from the books obviously never did it for me. Here, you are mostly clicking away into other scenes from other perspectives that you don’t see coming until the app offers you a quick prompt; nearly gamifying the experience of paying attention. Later, you’re asked if you want to double back to see things from a different angle or to pursue something you once missed, but the best system of access is a skill-tree version of the story that allows you to bounce back to any point at any time to catch what you missed, thanks to the app keeping track of where you’ve previously made choices.

Now, each of these segments can be up to thirty minutes long. Yeah, I was taken aback by that too. This is genuinely an app that offers you more than a season of a TV show that will be drastically different than the six episode, 30 minute experience that most HBO viewers will interact with. But it also seems important that we’ve been offered this a month ahead of time so that, like Game of Thrones who came into the show having read the books, some of us will have more informed, more complicated takes on the source material. The finished product that airs will just be a finer grained version of the exact same material.

Mosaic is a haunting police story that I’d put up there alongside Christopher Nolan’s smaller scale crime dramas, but of course brimming with Soderbergh’s personality. And by that, I very directly mean that the first hour or so of this is a screw-you style dare to the audience to keep watching. You’ll be rewarded for sticking to it. From here, there’s a chance to dive into characters' voicemails or pasts, and a very (I’m hesitant to call it this) Watch_Dogs style of interactivity.

I feel like I took a no_clip cheat to Twin Peaks.

But also there’s no obvious place where this show needs to edit to made it interesting. I’m a bit bummed that some people won’t see this version, which isn’t actually that much longer than the final seven episodes? But also, maybe there’s something completely different that the director and team have in store that spins this entire thing on its head? I feel like I took a no_clip cheat to Twin Peaks. But what if there’s an entirely separate story to be told here and the folks who did the pre-homework only have half the mystery?

Jesus. Okay, well, one can dream.

In the meantime, Mosaic is a free app you can grab now that has an entire Soderbergh TV show in it that you control, and if you want a head start before the director’s cut premieres on January 22nd, there are worse ways to waste hours staring at your phone.