Netflix’s Bodies Adaptation Wastes an Intriguing Story on Generic Clichés

TV Reviews Netflix
Netflix’s Bodies Adaptation Wastes an Intriguing Story on Generic Clichés

While fighting my way through Netflix’s latest 8-episode murder mystery limited series, Bodies, I kept coming back to the same thought: in the hands of a more capable writer-showrunner, this show could have become another remarkable triumph. Based on Si Spencer’s DC Comics/Vertigo graphic novel of the same name, Paul Tomalin’s historical crime drama has an intriguing and intricate source material to lean on, but you won’t really get to see that fully realized by watching its TV adaptation. Its uninspired execution is so painfully generic and dull that the best it can hope for is being compared to better and more ambitious series like the streaming service’s excellent German hit Dark. That’s a shame because, with a more delicate and imaginative approach (perhaps on another network), this narrative could have paid off tremendously.

The series begins in 2023 London, where Detective Sergeant Hasan (Amaka Okafor) is lured by a teenager to a naked man’s dead body at Longharvest Lane. The unknown victim is missing an eye (presumably due to a gunshot wound, though there’s no bullet) and has a tattoo on his left wrist. The same body is also found in three other time periods (1890, 1941, and 2053) at the exact same location by three different detectives who start investigating the murder. It doesn’t take long to figure that there’s some sort of time travel involved in all cases that connect a group of people in the past, present, and the future—and they have no idea how substantial their roles are in discovering the nude John Doe. 

We follow each investigator simultaneously as they put the pieces together to unravel the identity of the victim and find the killer responsible. Ultimately, the clues lead to one mysterious man (Stephen Graham), who seems to be the key to finding an answer to the inexplicable. But he’s only the tip of the iceberg in a universe-altering chain of events that spans decades, and leads to global conjunctures that play a crucial role in changing history.

However, before we get to the most intriguing aspects of these complex timelines, the series attempts to establish the protagonists separately to make us emotionally invested from the start. Unfortunately, their personal dramas are rather underwhelming and only seem to stand in the way of getting to the central mystery. Don’t get me wrong, it makes perfect sense to deepen these characters from the get-go, who later will connect in various ways (though on separate timelines), but their individual struggles are largely clichés we have seen dozens of times before.

It doesn’t help that, regardless of whether we are in the past or the future, the atmosphere always comes across as superficial and featureless. Despite the social climate and the settings aptly conveying each period, an element of quality seems to be missing to make them feel lived-in and palpable. Even in the undeveloped age of 1890 and the war-torn England of 1941, everything seems too groomed and impeccable, which comes across as somewhat inauthentic. Whenever we’re transported into a different time, it’s difficult to not think of these eras as manufactured environments that only exist to serve the plot.

The entire approach and execution of Bodies gives the underwhelming impression of getting from one plot point to another without actually having an impact on the viewer. The story we follow makes sense but isn’t engaging, suspenseful, or exciting enough to hold our attention. Tomalin has no vision to turn this complex web of characters (their failures, traumas, and losses triggered by the body they all discover) into the mind-bending and emotionally overwhelming rollercoaster it should be. Thus, it doesn’t matter how often he puts them through the wringer and leads them to stunning revelations regarding their fate because we just don’t care about them enough (whether they live or die) to relate. They’re only here to serve the plot, period.

This complex story needed a more careful hand, one that could manage to, at the very least, create the illusion that Bodies is driven by its characters and not just its larger plot points. And the lack of such a showrunner is frustratingly evident. There are twists in these eight episodes (which were all provided for review) that are meant to be mind-boggling and monumental, yet they don’t get more than a shrug at best from the viewer. Essentially, the dry and lackluster approach painstakingly kills every ounce of potential the show aims to fulfill.

You can’t even blame the cast (a mixed bag of British actors) because they all have brief moments when they flash their talents. Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s boasting and self-centered DS Karl Whiteman is a walking testament to classic film noirs. He’s excellent at conveying egotistical arrogance while hiding his true identity as a Jewish man embarrassed by his heritage during the Second World War. As DI Hillinghead, a closeted gay detective in 1890, Kyle Soller adequately portrays a loving family man driven to solve a murder case no matter where it leads while grappling with his own ambiguous feelings for men. But the absolute best of the show is Stephen Graham’s peculiar and fascinating Elias Mannix, who, due to his brief screen time, is almost entirely wasted as a character conspiring mostly in the background—which is unfortunate since his screen presence dominates and elevates every scene he appears in.

Ultimately, Bodies ends up being an exasperatingly disappointing adaptation of a good story filled with thrilling possibilities that remain largely unexplored. Finding its place between terrible and great is the very spot where this mediocre production is headed to die without anyone able to recall something specifically outstanding about it from a few years’ distance. It’s too bad, because the source material has the seed that could blossom into a fascinating study about the complexities of time and fate.

Bodies premieres Thursday, October 19th on Netflix.

Akos Peterbencze is an entertainment writer based in London. He covers film and TV regularly on Looper, and his work has also been published in Humungus, Slant Magazine, and Certified Forgotten. Akos is a Rustin Cohle aficionado and believes that the first season of True Detective is a masterpiece. You can find him talk about all-things pop culture on Twitter (@akospeterbencze) and Substack (@akospeterbencze).

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