See‘s Immersive World-Building Can’t Make Up for Its Pervasive Dullness
See looks like a million bucks and plays like a bag of wet cement.TV Reviews See
Here’s an inauspicious way to begin a TV review: Remember Waterworld?
See looks great. It also looks expensive, which it was, reportedly clocking in at $15 million an episode; it was composed with obvious care, arriving at shots that’ll just knock your socks right off your feet a few times an episode. The richness of the production design echoes the detail of the world-building, which in turn reflects the ambition of the filmmaking. All good things. But the quality that most defines this Apple TV+ series is one that is, unfortunately, just as thickly layered: It is deeply, inescapably, and not even all that enjoyably ridiculous. So again I ask, do you remember Waterworld, the wildly expensive post-apocalyptic movie where Kevin Costner and Tina Majorino search for a mythic place known as DryLand? See has big Waterworld energy. Both determinedly commit to even the most ludicrous elements of their premise, swinging for the fences with the energy and confidence of a dude who once read a thing about baseball and is now clearly an expert. It strikes out at nearly every turn, but you’ve got to admire the spirit.
There’s no single element of See that’s quite as cockamamie as “DryLand,” but by the time you grasp what the term “GodBone” means, you might feel otherwise. That’s but one unfamiliar word used by the descendants of the survivors of a devastating plague, which reduced the earth’s population to 2 million people, all of whom became blind after the illness. Generations later, the concept of vision has “become heresy,” as a title card tells us early on; the idea seems to be that it was sight that led humanity to sow the seeds of its own destruction, and now the concept alone is dangerous/heretical/witchcraft/a myth/something. That’s a problem for Baba Voss (Jason Momoa), the leader of the Alkenny tribe, because the tribe recently welcomed pregnant newcomer Maghra (Hera Hilmar) who in the pilot gives birth to twins, and it soon becomes clear—as it does to midwife/spiritual leader/bird psychic Paris (Alfre Woodard)—that there’s something different about them. Want to make a guess? A nefarious queen (Sylvia Hoeks) knows of their birth, suspects that they might be born with the ability to see, and tasks one of her Witchhunters General (Christian Camargo) to find them—a quest that breeds violence, destruction, and desolation.
There are all kinds of issues with See, and we’ll get to some but not all of them. (What happened to braille? Who’s dying the fabrics? How come there are so many psychics, and are they actually psychic? They lose the word for “steel” but keep both “queen” and “parliament”? You hire Tantoo Cardinal and then give her nothing to do? I could go on.) But whatever other complaints might be made or questions raised (The blindness was caused by a plague but is now inherited?), it cannot be said that creator/writer Steven Knight and director Francis Lawrence are phoning it in. This series is never not at 11: it’s revealed that Woodard’s Paris has psychic dreams, reads the minds of birds, and has psychic dreams about mind-reading birds in the show’s earliest moments; at one point a character draws a knife on another from the hiding place inside her own forearm. The language is often beautiful, the visual and sonic designs thoughtful and surprising, and the chilly, elegant cinematography consistently striking. There’s a shot in the third episode that frames Jason Momoa as he’s about to shove a sword into a kneeling guy’s throat, and it’s so perfectly composed it should hang in a museum.
Except, of course, it shouldn’t, because the show itself just isn’t very good. Waterworld isn’t the only epic that comes to mind while viewing See. It shares a certain level of excess and imbalance with Amazon’s silly, shallow fantasy epic Carnival Row in that there’s endless detail about the world and Scrooge McDuck-like vats of money through which the show can swim, but start to pick it apart with any level of scrutiny and it crumbles into dust. It also encourages comparisons to Knight’s Serenity, the Anne Hathaway/Matthew McConaughey pseudo-noir in which McConaughey is obsessed with a giant fish named Justice. That’s not a good movie, and for better or worse, See shares its complete inability to chill, like a meeting where someone at the start says “there are no bad ideas” and by the end of the meeting you’ve invented Uber for cats. Sadly, however, See also stands in contrast to the fish-named-Justice movie, because of this big difference: Serenity, at least, was rarely boring.
While Knight and Lawrence were inventing Uber for cats, they didn’t seem to stop to really develop these characters, and that renders all of the violence and world-building and mythology kind of a bland wash of stuff. They gave the people who wander their world secrets and broad-strokes traits, but not inner lives; Momoa’s Baba fares best, but that’s not saying much. He, at least, gets some scenes where he’s just being a dad walking around in the woods, and those scenes seem to be about an actual person; but then he’ll have to fight a bear bare-handed or something and we lose that thread. Worst served by a country mile is Hoeks, whose compelling presence is squandered on a role that asks her to play a kind of vaguely evil, ethereal fairy tale villain, up to and including demands that her huntsman find those blasted perfect babies; the episodes screened for critics include not one but two scenes of her praying to the “GodFlame” by means of vigorous clitoral stimulation, and that’s about it for her development.
That near-total lack of character investment is the biggest impediment to engaging with the series on an emotional level, but it’s also damned hard to engage with it intellectually, because See also doesn’t seem to know what it’s saying. On the one hand, the series doesn’t portray its blind characters as feeble, uncertain, or unable to contribute to society, and in fact takes great pains to show us both how they navigate the world and the frequent ease with which they do so; the cast includes several blind or low-vision actors, and a blindness consultant (Joe Strechay) is also named as an associate producer. On the other, is the idea here really that in the kingdom of the blind, the two babies that can see are kings? The show’s characters argue about this a little, but it’s mostly framed as fear of what might become of the children were they to leave the safety of their small community; the idea that their sight makes the pair capable of saving the world is never in doubt.
Only three episodes were provided for critics, so it’s possible that this particular element of the story will grow more complex as the season progresses. The third episode includes a scene in which one of the twins gets a stern lecture about thinking she’s superior to the rest of her community because of this one ability, so it’s not like they’re purely messianic figures. But with the first three episodes so packed with nonsense, the question is whether or not anyone will stick around to find out if things get more coherent.
This writer probably will not. If anything will lure audiences to See, it’s all that rich world-building—the infrastructure they build to survive, the cool-as-hell costumes, the ultra-quiet “Shadow” who paints herself white and does naked cartwheels while spying on people—but without emotional connection, intellectual heft, or any sense of fun, how can that be enough? Waterworld at least had the benefit of being under three hours. Here, Knight and Lawrence are asking for eight hours, minimum. There aren’t enough psychic owls or naked cartwheels to render this a deal worth making.
See premieres Friday, November 1st on Apple TV+
Check out our reviews of the rest of Apple TV+’s inaugural programs below:
Allison Shoemaker is a TV and film critic whose work has appeared in The A.V. Club, Vulture, RogerEbert.com, and other publications. She is also the co-host of the podcasts Hall Of Faces and Podlander Drunkcast: An Outlander Podcast, the latter of which is exactly what it sounds like.