MGM+’s Messy The Emperor of Ocean Park Rules Over Convoluted Empire

MGM+’s Messy The Emperor of Ocean Park Rules Over Convoluted Empire

The intrigue of MGM+’s “The Emperor of Ocean Park” turns on the sudden demise of federal judge Oliver Garland (Forest Whitaker), found one day at his desk dead of an apparent heart attack. The news sends ripples through the media, and disrupts the lives of his three adult children — Talcott “Tal” Garland (Grantham Coleman), a law professor who suspects his wife of infidelity; Mariah (Tiffany Mack), a right-leaning conspiracy theorist and former journalist; and Addison (Henry Simmons), a former morning news anchor. In life, Garland was a polarizing figure, a Black conservative whose failed run at a Supreme Court seat (seems to happen a lot with Garlands) led him to become a talking head on Fox News. But the more Mariah digs, and a mysterious fixer named Jack Ziegler (Torrey Hanson) pops up in Tal’s periphery asking about his father’s “arrangements,” the more foul play feels like a possibility. 

And so it goes over ten soapy episodes, adapting Stephen L. Carter’s bestselling thriller to the lengthy, novelistic confines of your average streaming miniseries. In adaptation, though, the book’s strange mix of tones and subjects clashes mightily: In one scene, it’s a relationship drama about cheating spouses and “Succession”-esque father-son clashes over dynasty. In another, it’s a cheap potboiler about CIA operatives and hit-and-run conspiracies. Showrunner Sherman Payne (“Charm City Kings“) plays these scenes out over alternating flashbacks between the present day and various points in Oliver Garland’s life, from his Supreme Court hearings to his life as a young father to Tal. Sometimes, this structure works, if only to give us a break from the relatively tedious present-day storyline. But mostly, the pacing feels helter-skelter, as we struggle to figure out what plot thread we’re pulling on this time. 

Sprinkled throughout are issues of Black identity politics, especially those of the upper crust — its most compelling moments deal with the intersection of race and class in such high-society environments as Washington, DC and Martha’s Vineyard. “You are a Black boy, soon to be a Black man!” Oliver scolds a young Tal in flashback. “The deck will always be stacked against you!” Our characters are Black, rich, and successful, but still find themselves stymied by blinkered white counterparts, and often find themselves having to play the game — say, by shilling for the right wing — to get ahead. (Sometimes, this plays out in cringeworthy moments where Tal or Mariah roll their eyes at corny white folks.) 

But mostly, “Ocean Park” concerns itself with tawdry, warmed-over Lifetime movie subplots about cheating spouses and domestic squabbles; Tal’s consistent quest to figure out whether his wife Kimmer (Paulina Lule) is cheating on him, and with whom, takes up valuable real estate that just stretches out the thin story beyond its breaking point. Perhaps as a point towards the Garlands’ silver-spoon privilege, these characters are mannered, confident, and poised, almost to a fault: There’s little character to them beyond the mechanics of the plot and the words they must spout from the script. (To be clear, the white characters are dull as dishwater, too.) One of the cast’s few bright spots is Deanna Reed-Foster’s Cousin Sally, a boisterous woman always with a drink in her hand, lending some of the show’s few moments of levity.

Then there’s Whitaker, a powerful force whose presence looms over the rest of the series, almost to a fault. His Garland feels like a classic Whitaker character, all raspy, withered bombast and clipped remarks — an early sequence in which he marathons one right-wing talking head segment after another is delightful in its absurdity (talk of “liberal demons” and “patriotic Americans… forced into gulags”). But given that he spends much of the show as a ghost of the past, the show only really comes alive when he’s on screen; his specter haunts the present-day segments, as you’re left wondering whether anyone else can match his charisma. 

At the end of the day, much like “Succession,” “The Emperor of Ocean Park” feels most like a rumination on empire and dynasty within the realms of America’s wealthiest, and how that looks from a Black lens. Too bad, then, that those interesting ideas get lost in a soup of petty personal dramas, cheap conspiracy-thriller antics, and a time-hopping structure that messes mightily with the show’s pacing. And when stretched across an agonizing ten-episode The Emperor, I’m afraid to admit, has no clothes.