My Brilliant Friend is one of the best shows on television. Adapted from a best-selling novel, it's a huge hit abroad. Here's why you should watch this hidden gem on HBO.
My Brilliant Friend, HBO's Italian-language drama that just wrapped its third season, begins with a mystery.
Elena Greco, the elderly narrator of the show — and of the four books the series is based on, Elena Ferrante's best-selling Neopolitan Novels — receives a call from her best friend's son. Lila has disappeared. This compels Elena, aka Lenu, to recount their nearly 60-year friendship: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Born and raised in a poor Naples neighborhood in the 1950s, from which the girls follow very different trajectories, Lila (Gaia Girace) and Lenu (Margherita Mazzucco) develop a friendship so deep it's like a sisterhood. It's full of rivalry and support, loyalty and betrayal, challenge and acceptance, secrets kept, and painful truths shared.
There's the sense that, like it or not, they'll always wind up in each other's lives again, no matter how much time has gone by. Love or hate each other (or both), they're inextricably linked until the end. And haven't we all had friendships like that, where you call or text after months of not speaking, and you pick right up where you left off — as if the conversation never ended? That's what makes My Brilliant Friend resonate so deeply: Because we've all been there before.
Although the show has been a major hit in Italy, it has largely gone under the radar in the U.S. Chalk it up to HBO's minimal promotion, its 10 p.m. timeslot, or America's continued aversion to subtitles, but overlooking this series is a mistake.
While My Brilliant Friend explores the women's relationships with parents, husbands, and children, their friendship remains central. And that's what's so refreshing. When was the last time a series put the complex dynamic of female friendship under the microscope in such an unflinching way?
Their story is set during a tumultuous time in Italian history, when communist and fascist forces collided and sparked change. This setting broadens the scope, adds further nuance, and raises questions that today's viewers are familiar with. As Lila's factory coworkers begin to unionize, will she keep quiet or risk her job by joining them? Can the upper class, like Lenu's in-laws, no matter how liberal, truly identify with the struggles of the poor? Is inaction in the face of injustice tantamount to culpability?
That kind of complexity is ever-present in My Brilliant Friend. Nothing is black and white, which is why fans of shows like Big Little Lies and Girls will appreciate watching these messy, multifaceted female characters navigate their increasingly complicated lives.
At turns, the fiery Lila is magnetic, cruel, vulnerable, and cold. While we often sympathize with the bookish Lenu, her meekness and inaction frustrate. And, although Lenu, who has become a writer and the wife of a respected professor, is seen as a neighborhood success story, Lila is quietly putting her inherent genius to work at a fledgling company named IBM (yes, that IBM).
The series has been a faithful adaptation of Ferrante's books thus far. Now that the fourth and final season has been greenlit, only time will tell if showrunners can end this nuanced portrait of female friendship as brilliantly as the author did. The good news is that, if you haven't tuned into My Brilliant Friend yet, you still have plenty of time to catch up before the finale. And you'll thank us when you do.