You ever watch a show and just experience a bone-deep weariness because, while it’s not bad and a lazy part of you just wants to keep watching more, you might not even have the willpower or bravery, one year into our pandemic, to reach out with your heavy arm and stop the Netflix “you must watch more!” inertia button. But… it’s also not good enough, and the minutes and hours that slip away are irrecoverable, and instead of sitting alone in this Austin, TX hotel room missing your family, you could be out on the streets eating an authentic chorizo taco and meeting an old musician who knew Willie Nelson and it turns out that’s just the start of his great stories?
Oops. Apologies. Got a little hyper-specific at the end there. Back to The Serpent, which has the good idea of dramatizing the life of the serial killer Charles Sobhraj, a French con artist with a predilection for poisoning, drowning, and burning other human beings, particularly hippies from the western world. He lived an outrageous life that included an opulent 20-year stay in an Indian prison—which he extended an extra 10 years by drugging all the guards and inmates during a “going away party,” walking out of the jail, and getting recaptured intentionally to avoid being executed in Thailand—and now rots in a Nepalese prison because he arrogantly returned to Kathmandu after they set him free. He’s an unbelievable psychopath, and terrific fodder for a miniseries co-produced by BBC and Netflix.
But that miniseries in practice? Ehhh. If you’re considering it, I’d give you the same advice I’d give to an American tourist in 1970 seeking enlightenment in the Buddhist monasteries of southeast Asia. Upon encountering a handsome, charismatic Frenchman who offers you a cup of tea: Move on, amigo. The show is superficially well done, “authentic” (as far as I know) in its various early-’70s aesthetics, and even splices in contemporary footage to heighten the verisimilitude. Part of the problem, though it feels cruel to say, is Billy Howle, the British actor who was very good in Dunkirk and enjoys a strong reputation in the U.K. Here, he’s required to do a Dutch accent as Herman Knippenberg, the diplomat who becomes Sobhraj’s chief pursuer, and the real problem is not the so-so accent, but the fact that he plays virtually every scene on the verge of an emotional breakdown. Sometimes it almost makes sense, and other times he’s having a normal conversation and begins shaking and tearing up and you have no idea what’s happening or why. It’s a tremendously distracting performance, and even as I tried to get into the rest of the narrative—with some success, here and there—Howle would appear again and I’d catch myself thinking, “I can’t do this again.”
Tahar Rahim as Sobhraj, and Jenna Coleman as his lover and lieutenant Monique, are far better. But as riveting as their performances can be, the main feeling is that you wish you could be watching them in a better show. (If that resonates, may I recommend the hidden crime classic The Last Panthers, where Rahim shines.) There is a coldness to the storytelling that is not Rahim or Coleman’s fault, but which catches them in its frigid web anyway, and transforms what could be a captivating dynamic into a slog. It comes down to choices—you can depict Sobhraj as a thrilling antihero or you can depict him as a scumbag, and in 2021 our TV morals are sufficiently relativistic that either one could work. You can’t, however, pick neither, which is what the creators of Serpent opt for, resulting in a flattening that discourages viewer engagement.
What I’m trying to say is that The Serpent is boring. But it’s boring in the most annoying way, where you constantly think it’s about to stop being boring, so you press on, tantalized, tolerating all the unnecessary time jumps and clumsy narrative devices, only to discover that the boredom never really ends. This is unforgivable; boring shows should openly declare their dullness immediately to save everyone a lot of time and effort. Instead, before you know, you’ll be three hours deep into a show that’s bound to earn a 63% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and rave reviews from all your least favorite people.
Are there things to admire? There are. As a fan of the ‘70s aesthetic, what they pulled off in a Southeast Asian setting is tremendous, and I could have just watched people walking on the streets of The Serpent’s Bangkok for hours. It’s an impressively created world, and you’ll find yourself wishing that a better drama had been set in it. Same for the clothes, and the hair, and the landscapes, et al. It’s very fun to look at, and if you were born after that era had come and gone, like me, it might even make you nostalgic for a place and time you never experienced.
As for the story, it’s a minor tragedy in the genre of “what might have been.” The ingredients are all there, but the product is a mess, a heap of writing and directing that failed to live up to its premise. One of Sobhraj’s great tricks, when he wasn’t outright killing, was to mildly poison his victims, nurse them to health, poison them some more, and on and on while they developed a dependence on him. The longer you watch this show, the more you’ll understand their plight—the thing you want is almost there, over and over, but then the scene changes, the plot shifts, and you’re back in the frozen ennui of a show that will never deliver that decisive, salutary kick.
The Serpent premieres Friday, April 2nd on Netflix.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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