Before I begin today, a sad story from Europe: An archaeologist in Spain is facing potential jail time after fabricating a series of artifacts that he used to claim extraordinary connections among the ancient Basque people, the Roman Empire, and the Amarna period Egypt of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Eliseo Gil claimed that his finds, primarily ceramics bearing Basque or Latin inscriptions, “rewrote the history books,” but he got caught after scholars noticed that the ancient names in the “Latin” inscriptions used modern Spanish spellings and contemporary punctuation, such as “Eneas” for “Aeneas,” according to a report in the Telegraph. Gil allegedly took genuine Roman ceramics and added his own inscriptions, which were apparently intended to glorify Basque history.
Warning: The following review contains some mild spoilers for The Stranger.
Meanwhile, over the weekend I finished Netflix’s The Stranger, an eight-part adaptation of Harlan Coben’s novel of the same name, which I have not read. Usually, after watching a show, I have a strong sense of whether I liked it and would recommend it. Occasionally I admire the accomplishments of a show while personally disliking it, and more rarely I enjoy something while finding it to bad. The Stranger, however, leaves me somewhat baffled. I am torn between praising the exceptional performances of its amazing cast, including Richard Armitage (Spooks, Strike Back), Hannah John-Kamen (Killjoys), Anthony Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and Jacob Dudman (The A List and the Doctor Who audio plays), and feeling like I wasted eight hours watching a story I had seen too many times before. By the time that the show stuck Dudman, from Netflix’s own teen drama The A List, in a repeat of the Munchausen’s-by-proxy subplot from another recent Netflix show, The Politician, I started to wonder if maybe there is now so much Netflix that its shows are created by a remix algorithm that endlessly recombines previous Netflix shows like some casting and screenwriting Mad Libs service.
I mean, how many Munchausen’s-by-proxy plots do you need in one calendar year?
The main story concerns Adam (Armitage), whose life falls apart when a stranger (John-Kamen) tells him a devastating secret about his wife. After he confronts her, she disappears, leaving him and his two sons to pick up the pieces. Meanwhile, the stranger is blackmailing people around town with their secrets, and it takes eight episodes to find out how her targets are (very loosely) connected to one another. Along the way, there is an irrelevant subplot about Munchausen’s along with a decapitated alpaca, multiple fake pregnancies, and some weird business about real estate that terminates in the only really good twist in the series—or at least what seemed that way after the slow-moving plot numbed me into submission. A couple of people get murdered and a troubled police detective starts to put the pieces together despite being undermined from within the department.
The identity of the stranger turns out to be a groan-inducing trip into the bowels of TV hell, where the law of the conservation of characters and the fetishization of family always reduce every seemingly sprawling narrative into a tight little circle of incestuous coincidence.
Reader, I laughed when I discovered that the entire mystery/murder plot hinged on embezzling money from a youth soccer club. How much cash do British kids’ soccer teams have that (a) no one noticed the money was gone, (b) it didn’t affect their club in any material way, and (c) it was worth killing over?
That said, the early episodes in which the stranger reveals secrets and lives unravel had great promise and would have made a killer hook for a weekly procedural show. I’d have watched that happily, but here, the revelation of who the stranger is and why she is doing what she is doing robbed the plot of its eerie intrigue. The whole teen subplot involving drugs, revenge porn, and an alpaca had no real reason to exist and contributed nothing, though it, too, might have made for a fine, if less original, show on its own, especially if they had the courage of their convictions and played it as the camp comedy that is so obviously lurking beneath the ridiculous attempt at gritty realism.
Similarly, it was interesting to watch the actors try to make the most out of material that ranged from overstuffed to under-baked. Armitage is fine in the lead role, though he never asked to do much more than look sad and sweaty. The show gave Head a cliché of a nefarious real estate developer for a character, and he turns him into someone watchable through sheer force of will. John-Kamen lends the same charm and glamour she brought to Killjoys to this much less compelling character and succeeds in making a cardboard cutout from a bad soap opera into an intriguing figure, at least until the narrative works against her in the last hours. Dudman, a relative newcomer to acting, does the most with the least, turning in a sympathetic and natural performance with no help whatsoever from his character’s sparse and largely irrelevant dialogue. It’s to his credit that I expected his character to have some larger purpose in the narrative and waited in vain for the teen story to come together with the main plot. (Technically, it does, but in such a slight and tangential way that you’d laugh if I told you how.)
By the time I finished writing this review, I managed to talk myself out of liking The Stranger, mostly because the number of plot holes and clichés far outstripped the couple of good ideas that started the series. Gene Siskel once famously said that the test of a movie’s quality is whether it is more interesting than a documentary of the same actors eating lunch. Today we might update that to ask if a TV show is better than the free videos on the same actors’ YouTube channels. In that spirit, watch this astonishing performance from Dudman, who is an exceptional impressionist. Here he sings 50 different spot-on impressions in three minutes, and I think you will agree that it is more entertaining than the entire run of The Stranger, which therefore fails the updated Siskel test.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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