A very happy New Year! If you read our gigantic 2021 preview (go here if you haven’t), you’ll know that 2021 starts in earnest with BBC One’s glossy-looking new, eight-part period crime drama, The Serpent.
It’s been on the slate for a while now (a COVID casualty, perhaps), and boasts a very decent cast to bring to life the story of French-Vietnamese, serial killer of the 1970s, Charles Sobhraj (Tahir Rahim).
Sobhraj cut a murderous but oh-so-charming swathe through south-east Asia in the mid-1970s, killing up to a dozen young men and women on the backpacking trail throughout Thailand, India and Nepal. Ably assisting him was his partner (in everything) Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman), and together they look the absolute business as they stride through the teeming streets of Bangkok in their over-sized shades and flares.
In fact, the look of The Serpent is that of a 1970s Blaxploitation or Kung Fu film – the palette is washed out, there’s a graininess to it and there are more crash zooms than you can shake a 35mm movie camera at.
And I think that’s the first thing you think after this first episode – there’s a real sense of style over substance.
And you have to pay attention, too, because just like Sobhraj’s life, The Serpent zig-zags throughout time as much as the killer did continents. One minute we’re in Hong Kong, and seeing Sobhraj and Leclerc charm the pants off Wim and Lena a pair of hapless and quite obviously doomed Dutch travellers, and then we’re zipping forward in time to meet young Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) and his wife Angela (Ellie Bamber), who are on the hunt for the forgotten and missing Wim and Lena.
And then we’re into another segment featuring young American traveller Teresa (Alice Englert), who’s on her way to Nepal to join a Buddhist monastery (hey, it’s the 1970s). The mistake she makes is accepting Sobhraj’s recruiter-in-chief Ajay’s invitation to a party. When she refuses to smuggle money for Sobhraj, she’s done for.
It all happens a bit fast, but soon we see Sobhraj’s modus operandi – he lures hapless young tourists in, asks them to courier or smuggle something (jewels, money) into another country, and when they refuse, he kills them. The police and consular services think they’re just more young hippies who have come a cropper but presumably, thanks to Herman, that is going to change.
As a set-up episode, this first instalment is fine – it looks great, has an almost Tarantino-esque admiration for 70s movies and Rahim and Coleman are just fine in the leads. But at the moment, there isn’t much else there and it feels a bit empty; almost as if there’s no grit in the pearl.
More depth may well come later, so it’s still early days. I was very pleased Teresa got a voice in death and a moving sermon as she floated face down in the Bay of Bangkok, so I’m hoping for more realism to add alongside all the style.
At this moment in time, I’m not sure how they’re going to string this out for eight episodes (although Charles Sobhraj did have quite an extraordinary life), but for now it was a stylish, intriguing start to 2021.