Image Credit: Netflix
The original miniseries opens with the Glass Animals upbeat hit ‘Tangerine’ playing over shots of the main characters’ family home. Five minutes in and we’ve already seen a birthday dinner end in tears, a club scene complete with a broken phone, and an unknown pill seductively ingested on the kitchen floor with a yoghurt spoon. Our first impressions are: quirky young-adult drama featuring reassuringly-relatable characters and events. But boy, were we wrong.
The series comprises eight episodes, each of them showing the perspective of a different character. Beginning with ‘The Sister’, we follow Pia Brewer as she picks herself up from clubbing the night before and arrives at work, only to be shown a video posted online of her brother Nick looking scared and bloodied, holding a handwritten sign that declares: ‘I abuse women’. What follows is a race against the clock, with another handheld warning that ‘at 5 million views I die’, acknowledging the “internet equals danger” subtext, and acting as the initial circumstance that brings media attention to the video. Crime investigations take place, and we wait for the detectives to catch up with basic facts. The signs are in Nick’s handwriting. Nobody can reach him. And no, he doesn’t have a history of domestic abuse. In the age of the #MeToo movement, the TV industry has had its fair share of dramas (including another Netflix limited series, Unbelievable, from 2019). It’s a delicate subject matter, but here it feels like a superficial plot thickener, giving a mere illusion of a multifaceted storyline.
Unlike its precursors: films like David Fincher’s The Social Network, and more recent, well-received internet dramas like The Circle and The Social Dilemma, the accuracy of online existence felt off. Online communication is fundamental to the thriller’s plot development, yet the basic internet search browser, imitation dating websites, and even the online messaging conversations felt outdated and patronising in their simplicity (and don’t get me started on the cringe-worthy abbreviations used by Ethan, Nick’s eldest teenage son).
It’s an attractive cast, with Adrian Grenier playing central character Nick, and Zoe Kazan and Betty Gabriel as his sister and wife respectively, both of whom like Nick more than each other, and so have to overcome their differences in order to help with the case. Kazan is well-suited to the young, attractive central character role, having previously starred in rom-coms like The Big Sick and What If?. Her punky and headstrong character, Pia, seems the most likely candidate to ignore police protocol and dive into the case herself - which she does, but only to an extent.
I’m a sucker for a whodunnit with a good plot twist and that was exactly what I was given. If anything, Netflix’s downfall was containing the storyline to a short miniseries that exhausts all main narrative possibilities, but fails to follow the tantalising subplots that were dropped in our laps then left to die with no follow-through.
Examples of this begin before the main plotline is introduced, when Pia matches with Detective Roshan Amiri on a dating website, although his profile identifies him under a different name. Pia later comes face-to-face with Amiri when he is assigned to her brother’s case. Cue the sexual tension. However, with the exception of some awkward almost-interactions and an unprofessional volume of phone calls exchanged between them, the relationship remains in the grey zone. Static, boring: either way, there’s no development. Ignoring that failed subplot, Amiri’s use of an online pseudonym sets the pretense for a lot of the action to come. Or it could have, if the writers had made it a bigger focus, by exploring the effects on his relationship with Pia, or even his own self.
Without the addition of any fully-formed subplot the thriller remains simply that; a two-dimensional (and frankly unrealistic) tale of the woes and dangers of the internet when misused. As the subject was killed off pretty early on, there was also no room for a redemption arc and, if anything, what really stuck with me was how quickly his friends and family were to write him off. By the end of it, I felt sorry for the bloke.
Each episode began with the promise of a new backstory, but I think Australian creators Tony Ayres and Christian White had bitten off more than they could chew. You'd expect complex backstories complete with suspicious behaviour and ulterior motives to accompany the range of narrators, yet each one was cut short before it had time to properly begin. The red herrings were believable at first, but became tenuous at best, with references that made you want to kick the screen in frustration at the characters’ obliviousness. When all is said and done, the experience lived up to its name - another Netflix series that I’ll think twice about before clicking on again.