What Sorry for Your Loss Understands About Grief

The gorgeous and poignant new drama from Facebook Watch stars Elizabeth Olsen as a young woman whose husband has died.

Elizabeth Olsen plays Leigh, a widow, in Facebook Watch's 'Sorry for Your Loss.'
Elizabeth Olsen plays Leigh, a widow, in Facebook Watch's Sorry for Your Loss. (Facebook Watch)

By the end of the fourth episode of Sorry for Your Loss, a new drama debuting on Facebook Watch, I’d cried so hard that one of my contact lenses had been physically dislodged from my eye. It’s the kind of series that’s instantly so fully formed, so funny and candid and wrenching right from the start, that you almost question the emotional propriety of it all. Should dead husbands be such an efficient clapback in sibling spats? Should the sight of Elizabeth Olsen—eyes as large and round as an anthropomorphized woodland animal in a Disney feature—standing frozen on the front porch of her old apartment be as destabilizing as the opening montage of Up?

Sorry for Your Loss is created by the playwright Kit Steinkellner and co–executive produced by Olsen. The Avengers actress has been on board the show during its three-year development process, and she anchors the story with her extraordinary portrayal of Leigh, a writer and barre instructor in Los Angeles whose husband has unexpectedly died (how exactly isn’t made clear, at least initially). What makes Sorry for Your Loss so sharp and so immediately watchable is that it isn’t about the high drama of bereavement so much as about the small-stakes processes that follow losing someone you love. The endless admin. The unpredictable triggers. The clichés.

Not to mention the anger. In the first four episodes made available for review, Leigh is bitter and misanthropic and rude, sometimes comically so, and she’s entirely furious at what’s happened to her. The series opens three months after the death of Matt (Mamoudou Athie, in flashback). Leigh has returned home to live with her mother, Amy (Janet McTeer), and her sister, Jules (Kelly Marie Tran), and she seems stuck in a phase she describes as “raging bitch.” When Jules, who’s in recovery for addiction, mentions how proud she is that she’s made it through recent months without a relapse, Leigh snidely replies, “Yeah, it really screwed me up, too, when my husband died.” At a meeting for her grief-counseling group, Leigh throws a fit when the regular donuts are replaced by crudités and dip, fuming that the meetings rarely make her feel better but the donuts sometimes do.

Sorry for Your Loss is impeccably structured for a streaming show, so that each episode offers an obstacle to be overcome, and its own kind of small but meaningful triumph. Leigh successfully manages to enter the apartment she shared with Matt and sort through the relics of their marriage. She makes amends to another young widow whose efforts at friendship she brutally rebuffed. She rescues a dog in the street and finds its owners, even though she’s formed an attachment to it. It sounds trite in summation, like the stuff of ’80s sitcoms and their accompanying life lessons, but the show is bolstered by wry, honed writing and a distinctive sense of humor. (“I love my futon,” Matt tells Leigh in flashback as they move in together. “So will the fraternity we’re donating it to,” she replies.)

The setup of Leigh’s family is also enough to support a dramedy for seasons to come. Amy, a Gen X hippie who runs a fitness studio and is constantly attempting to manifest things out loud, is embodied winningly by McTeer (recently seen in Jessica Jones), who gives her character a zany grace and an earthiness that makes even her more offbeat moments charming. Tran, who played one of the standout new characters in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is lovably earnest as Jules, whose own life crises have been supplanted by her sister’s grief, but who’s also mourning Matt. In one of the more achingly sad scenes, Jules is shattered after she finds some of Matt’s hair still in his razor while cleaning out the bathroom.

It’s Olsen’s show to carry, though, and she’s endlessly watchable as Leigh, even in her most brittle and hostile moments. In one conversation, after Jules passes on some hard-knocks recovery wisdom, first Olsen’s lip begins to quiver, then her mouth twists awkwardly, then tears sprout from her eyes. She stalks around in schlubby workout gear and men’s plaid shirts, her face deathly pale, but with a self-containment and an anguish that’s almost hypnotic to witness. She exudes pain and fury like Peanuts’s Pig-Pen wafts dirt, but the show works because it’s somehow hopeful, too: For every calamity, she finds some momentum.

Sorry for Your Loss’s showrunner, Lizzy Weiss, paints the sunny L.A. setting in shades of muted gray, as if to communicate the pallor of Leigh’s reality, with flashback scenes in brighter definition. The show’s directors over 10 episodes include the filmmaker James Ponsoldt (The Circle) and Azazel Jacobs (The Lovers), whose talents support an artful tonal balance between light and dark. The series is remarkably realistic when it comes to portraying grief (and its frequent boringness), but it’s also comforting in its sense of small victories adding up to progress. Sometimes a donut really does help.