Television

Oddly unconvincing: Apple TV+'s The Essex Serpent reviewed

28 May 2022

9:00 AM

28 May 2022

9:00 AM

The Essex Serpent; Shining Girls

Apple TV+

Having now watched it to the end, I would say that Slow Horses (Apple TV+) is by far the best TV drama I’ve seen in at least the last year: superbly acted and directed, ingeniously plotted, refreshingly free of annoyance. Oh, and I’d like to apologise to Mick Herron, author of the original novel series, which I now intend to devour. I’d say his understanding of the intelligence services is at least as jadedly insightful as John le Carré’s and I was quite wrong about his treatment of the ‘far-right’ threat. He gets it totally. The man is a genius.

But those hoping that Apple TV+ is going to supplant the increasingly rubbish, excruciatingly modish and content-lite Netflix as the new go-to subscription channel may be in for a disappointment. Certainly, the two new dramas I watched this week left me cold.

The first was The Essex Serpent, an adaptation of Sarah Perry’s bestselling novel about a sea monster – or is it? – that terrorises the populace of the Essex marshes in the 1880s. A decent production budget and starry cast led by Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes are squandered on a dreary, convoluted, portentous drama with all the appeal of a fog blanket over a giant rotting fish which someone briefly mistook for a dead dragon.

Book groups and critics would have adored Perry’s leaden, overwritten and over-researched snooze-fest. I can tell that just by having glanced over a few pages. This is exactly the kind of novel people tell themselves they enjoyed rather than having actually enjoyed it. Whoever designed the exquisite cover deserves most of the profits because that’s what sold it, not the contents.


The same goes for the TV version. The title sequence of floral and snake patterns is enticingly beautiful. But the characters are awkward, the acting stilted (Danes having, apparently, put so much effort into Cora Seaborne’s perfect English accent she has nothing left for her inner life) and its depiction of Victorian England (despite the carefully recreated London and Rochester street tableaux) oddly unconvincing.

In an early scene, Cora demonstrates her independent spirit by bending down in the middle of street (despite her fancy dress and constricting whalebone corset, whose constricting constrictingness has been dutifully emphasised in an earlier woman-gets-dressed-in-Victorian-England scene) to listen through the drain to the sound of the hidden rivers gushing beneath the city. And you just go: ‘Nah. She wouldn’t.’

You don’t believe in the sea monster either. I’ve only seen one-and-a-bit episodes but I know – spoiler alert – that the serpent is just a metaphor or a collective delusion or some such. And I really shouldn’t be so sceptical at this stage but that’s how contrived and ersatz the whole enterprise feels. I don’t buy the weird, small, experimental surgeon chap with his implausible haircut; I don’t buy the far-too-intimate maid servant; I don’t care about the dishy reverend, even if he is played by raffish and intense Hiddleston. And if I want eerie atmosphere and sense of place, I’ll rewatch The Wicker Man instead. At least I can be sure that there’ll be a satisfying pay-off.

I can’t really see myself persisting with Shining Girls either. It’s about a Depression-era drifter who travels through time murdering young women. The thought of having to sit through eight whole hours of dripping ceilings and shabby stairwells and flickering lighting and pretty girls who might not have been hideously murdered if only they’d turned round when you shrieked at them is just too, too depressing.

This stuff isn’t aimed at men. It’s designed for young women who half want all their worst suspicions confirmed that round every corner is a rapist or a murderer. But to me this is contrived and exploitative.

Also, I feel as though I’ve seen a lot of it before. The supernatural menace recalls Pennywise, the clown/spider thing from It; the time-travelling serial killer is redolent of an old X-Files episode; and the 1990s Chicago newspaper for which our heroine Kirby Mazrachi (Elisabeth Moss from Mad Men) works is like all the newspapers that exist only on screen.

It’s definitely creepy and disturbing, if you like that sort of thing, especially the serial killer, played by Jamie Bell with such unsettling relish he makes Hannibal Lecter look like Mary Poppins. Also, it’s a neat idea the way one of the effects he has had on the heroine (whom he almost kills) is to trap her in a series of temporal glitches so that when she comes home, the decor is never the same, and her pet keeps changing from cat to dog. But I’m not sure this – nor the eventual, inevitable explanation – is going to be quite enough to keep me watching.

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