Secrets can be murder to keep.
What’s the story?
Following on from the success of Netflix’s adaptation of Safe, the streaming giant has doubled down on author Harlan Coben’s work with a sophomore production of his novel The Stranger. Much like its predecessor, the show takes the “domestic noir” trope of unpicking the seemingly perfect middle-class lives of its characters to extreme new lengths with almost manic glee. The story follows chisel-jawed lawyer Adam Price (Richard Armitage) and his rapid descent into desperation after being told a secret about his flirtatious wife Corrine (Dervla Kerwan) by a mysterious stranger (Hannah John-Kamen, clearly having the time of her life). The exposure of that revelation leads Corrine to go missing, an act which in turn draws myriad other characters toward the mystery – including DCI Johanna Griffin (Siobhan Finneran in fine form), who is trying to edge toward retirement without any hassle before her own personal life is dragged inexorably into the intrigue. The Stranger packs a lot into its eight episodes – and along the way, there’s abduction, murder, blackmail, poisoning and even a decapitated alpaca (yes, you read that right) to keep the narrative pot bubbling.
What’s good about it?
OK, let’s get the most obvious thing out the way first.
The Stranger is RIDICULOUS.
And that’s exactly what I kept telling myself as I immediately cued up each episode, one after the other. Because despite being absolutely bonkers, this show has serious momentum. The story hurtles forward with the terminal velocity of a runaway train, dragging collateral plot-lines in its wake. The speed in which things progress definitely helps to mask some of the giant holes in the narrative, but when the ride is this much fun, it’s hard to care too much. It certainly feels like a show that’s been precision-tooled by the number-crunchers at Netflix to achieve maximum user retention, with each episode culminating in a tantalising cliffhanger that demands you continue watching.
It’s also a show that is quite self-aware in the paucity of its core conceit, so we spend a little time in the earlier episodes down other avenues exploring some secondary stories involving teenage hi-jinks and the human detritus that blackmail creates, before it’s all neatly folded back into the larger narrative at hand. Whilst it might not boast the more nuanced sentiments of our favourite Nordic Noir shows, it certainly doesn’t linger in leaving plot-lines dangling either – and there’s a breezy, light touch to proceedings that offers up some genuinely funny comic moments, especially notable in the sparky dialogue between Griffin and her younger colleague DC Wesley Ross (a wonderful turn from Kadiff Kirwan).
It’s good to see Netflix increasingly willing to throw a little cash at this type of show too – a UK production with slick, cinematic quality that will transfer well to international markets. Whilst that means a touch of Americanisation about certain elements (a veritable proliferation of guns being one), these broader brushstrokes actually add a little more dramatic gusto to a show that is able to absorb this shorthand style better than others. It’s no wonder the show instantly became the site’s number one programme in the week of its release (although what the platform’s metrics for this is anybody’s guess, being notoriously shy as they are about releasing any comparable data).
What’s bad about it?
Maybe it’s the slightly disjointed tone of the show, but whilst it features a great cast of experienced character actors – including Stephen Rea, Anthony Head, Paul Kaye, Shaun Dooley and even Jennifer Saunders (in what might be her first non-comic role) – there is a significant disparity in the quality of acting on display, swinging from scenery-chewing to barely-there from scene to scene. Armitage and Finneran certainly shoulder the bulk of the heavy lifting as the leads, but they are let down a touch by some of the other players’ misinterpretation of the kind of show they are performing in – more a fault of the script than their abilities, however.
The plot is also one of those that doesn’t bear too much thought once you’ve ridden it to the end – and that end, for what it’s worth, is absolute nonsense – but to the credit of the scriptwriters, you will forgive that transgression for the sheer enjoyment to be had along the way. Some may feel the plot is needlessly over-stuffed with extraneous elements whose convolutions can be hard to keep a hold on, but I haven’t been this entertained (and simultaneously dismayed, I admit) with a show since Bodyguard, so maybe use that as a litmus test for your own tolerance.
Why it’s worth a binge…
Oh you’ll binge it alright. You’ll binge it all.
The Stranger is available on Netflix