PLOT-TWIST AND SHOUT, or All’s Well That Doesn’t End Well

If you’re like me, you’ve probably been watching more TV than normal during this Foule Pandemique. Folks tend to divide themselves into two groups: those who seek out and view as many thrillerish mini-series as they can find, finally breaking down in tears if they mistakenly view three programs from Finland in a row, and those who binge-watch the entire series of The Office and Community . . . and then turn around and binge watch them again. 

I happen to be both.

Today, I’m going to talk about the thrillers. This is a mystery-themed blog, after all, and frankly I have no insights to offer about either The Office OR Community . . . except to ask if you’ve noticed that Jim Halpert and Jeff Winger are each other’s Bizarro-world opposite, and yet I feel I would be satisfied cohabiting with either one. But enough with the TMI: let’s deal with the televised version of that literary phenomenon, the Unreliable Narrator Thriller, (which I’m sure we all hope is on its last legs. All those couples next door spying on the women in the train windows and screaming, “Lie to me” have exhausted just about any bluff, double bluff or double double bluff you can think of. That well has dried up, the freshness is going . . . going . . . gone, girl!)

The TV equivalent of this is the suspense mini-series. On the plus side, these tend to only go on for a manageable four to eight episodes, meaning that if one of these programs ends up being a stinker, you can forgive yourself and say that not too much time was wasted. On the negative side, some of them are so bad that you might not feel so forgiving of yourself.

Netflix is loaded with mini-series thrillers, many of them British, many of them based on the works of a guy named Harlan Coben. They often end up landing the “#1 viewed program on Netflix” slot for a while, proving that you can fool all of the people some of the time.  The best thing about these series – even the good ones – is that they’re short, with an average length of seven or eight episodes. If they do their job right, they leave you wanting more which, believe me, is a better feeling than watching Daenerys Targaren go made for four episodes then lay waste to King’s Landing, while you stare angrily at the screen and wonder when this foolishness will end. And if they do their job, erm, wrong, then at least you feel like your life hasn’t been an utter waste.

Well, most of the time. I have been so badly burned by shows like these that I have thought about suing to get my six hours back. Just this past February, I watched a Netflix show called Behind Her Eyes, and then inflicted my pain in the usual fashion on Facebook: 

Nobody likes a mystery better than I do! (I wrote) Nobody appreciates a good twist more than me! That said, I am hereby issuing an advisory warning against the new series, Behind Her Eyes, on Netflix. It would be a kindness, believe me, for me to spoil it for you here, but I don’t play that way. Suffice it to say that the question on my mind is: can one sue a streaming service for six hours of life irretrievably gone?

Behind Her Eyes, or Three Actors in Search of Forgiveness

Without getting into specific spoilers here, the main problem with Behind Her Eyes is that its final explanation required a genre switch that came without warning. It played unfair! And it did so in order to give us a howling twist of a final moment that left a nasty taste in my mouth. 

All stories in all forms have rules. The rules for A Thriller Mini-Series (hereafter referred to as an ATM to save space and avoid confusion) are simple. You introduce a problem into the lives of an attractive group of people. A typical problem is the return of someone who shouldn’t be there, either because they got out of prison for killing someone or because they’re the person who was supposed to have been killed. More imaginative ATMs might come up with a (excuse the visual hyperbole) STUNNING REVELATION THAT TURNS EVERYONE’S NICE WORLD UPSIDE DOWN!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sophie Hannah does this brilliantly in her books. (Not those Poirot continuation novels but the good books.) In Little Face, an exhausted new mother decides to leave her baby in the crib and get a little “me time.” When she returns and checks on the kid, she runs out of the room screaming, “That’s not my child!!” Great hook to get you into a story! 

A lot of ATMs, good, bad, and indifferent, have good hooks. Last year, I watched The Stranger, one of those aforementioned Harlan Coben adaptations that seem to breed on Netflix like bloody rabbits), and, to be honest, I can’t remember much about it, but I do remember the hook. This happy guy with a great wife and two wonderful boys is at the soccer match of one of his sons when this young woman approaches him and tells him that his wife, who recently lost a baby, was never really pregnant. 

What follows revelations like this forms the crux of the second rule of ATMs. Every episode before the last must contain a series of twists and events that upend the beliefs, values, and happiness of all concerned. Whoever is playing detective discovers that everyone is keeping secrets. In the recent hit HBO series, Mare of Easttown, which some may consider the ne plus ultra of ATMs, even the detective has secrets – and really good ones, played to the hilt by the deservedly-destined-for-many-awards star, Kate Winslet. 

The gold standard: Mare of Easttown

I do think the hook is incredibly important, but some people might rate the quality of an ATM by this series of twists that tend to end each episode in a jaw-dropping cliffhanger. My neighbor is a cult leader? My sister killed her husband?? My husband is my sister??? It’s like a board game: if the twist gives you a shocked thrill of delight, you advance to the next episode. And if it makes you want to throw your shoe at the TV, . . . . well, you still advance because, after all, it’s only eight episodes, right? RIGHT?!?

Mare of Easttown had me moving forward, even though I started to think, “Is anyone in this town just a nice, boring person with no dark secrets???” A lot of this had to do with the acting by Winslet and a sterling cast. And then some of the twists were truly magnificent and even emotionally exhausting. (There’s a death in the middle that you didn’t see coming and wish you could undo.) All that was left was to see if Mare could fulfill the third rule of a good ATM: knock ‘em dead in the final act.

That last episode is truly important in the scheme of things here. By the time you reach it, you should feel a little bit enervated by all the twists and turns and yet busting out with excitement to find out just WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON!! Mare of Easttown pretty much got it right. Now, I’m not going to say the ending surprised me completely. When the character who is eventually revealed to be the main culprit first appeared in Episode One, I muttered, “They did it.” Then I forgot the whole thing until the end. I probably said that about a couple of other characters, too, if I’m being honest, but there was a pattern here that reminded me of an old Midsomar Murders episode, so it was hard to feel utterly surprised when it came up at the end. Still, the actors made hay of the final revelation, and a good, somber time was had by all, including this viewer.

Bearing all this in mind, we turn to the latest in this long line of what has become standard genre fare during this golden year and a half that we’ll call My Pandemic. Clickbait dropped onto Netflix a week ago and within a few days had become – you guessed it – “the #1 viewed program” on that streaming service. There I was, burned by Behind Her Eyes yet burnished by Mare of Easttown. But did I have eight hours to spare for another one of these? 

Are you kidding?  

The ATM du jour – Adrian Grenier as Nick

Now that I have watched Clickbait, my reaction is . . . complicated. Let’s see how it fares under the Rules of the ATM. 

Rule #1: The Hook

The hook is great: one morning, happy family man Nick Brewer (Adrian Grenier) sets off to work at the college women’s soccer league where he works as a sports therapist, but he never arrives. Instead, a video drops online of Nick in an undisclosed location, badly beaten and holding up signs that say, “I abuse women” and “At five million views, I will die.” 

The first question, wrung for all its suspenseful potential, is: Can . . . this . . . man . . . be . . . saved? But, of course, the deeper question the investigation is, “Are the allegations that Nick is presenting in the video true, and if so, who kidnapped him?” His wife Sophie (Betty Gabriel) and his sister Pia (Zoe Kazan) insist that Nick is the kindest man, the best husband and brother, and a wonderful dad to his two sons Ethan and Kai. The idea that he could have done what the video suggests is impossible. 

And yet . . . the series opened with a scene at a birthday party for Nick and Pia’s mom where brother and sister have a raging fight and he throws her out of his house. And something is not up with Sophie: she seems closed and secretive. Are these women telling the truth? All of this occurs in the first fifteen minutes of the series, and I promise I won’t give any more of the actual plot away. But I do want to talk about what it felt to watch this particular story unfold during COVID. 

Zoe Kazan as Pia

Rule #2: Every episode before the last must contain a series of twists and events that upend the beliefs, values, and happiness of all concerned.

The structure of Clickbait, which has been done before, but it is used effectively here, is that episodes One through Seven switch the point of view to a different character. We start with the sister, Pia, who pretty much remains the center of the story from start to finish. The second episode, “The Detective” continues the investigation through the eyes of Roshan Amiri (Phoenix Rael) a member of the Missing Persons squad who longs to join Homicide and who happens to be a Muslim. The third episode centers around “The Wife.” After that, I’d rather not give any more titles since they indicate some of the new directions in which the story twists and turns. 

And yeah, some of those twists and turns are terrific, especially those that are introduced more subtly through odd little events or gestures. Like, why does Amiri give Pia a funny look when she and Sophie report Nick’s disappearance. Who is son Ethan texting so secretively in his bedroom? And what about certain questions that seem promising but get interrupted before they can be completely asked? 

There is no acting here that comes close to Winslet, who elevates the material with amazing work in every episode, but the central trio are all quite good, and there’s fine work to be had from other members of the large cast, most of whom flit in and out of the story depending on whose POV we are viewing. The only person I didn’t like was a reporter who gets his own episode. We’re not meant to like the character, as he represents the vilest form of muckraking that tends to attach itself to domestic tragedy. But I thought this guy – and the actor who played him – were almost cartoonish in their villainy. 

The twists keep coming throughout the series, forcing you to think and rethink about the innocence or guilt of most of these characters. Of course, many of the leads uncovered twist off into red herrings, but some of these red herrings are quite good and reinforce the fact that most of these terrible things are happening to a family and as much as we want to solve the mystery, it’s also good drama to watch how people, both singly and in relationships, deal with such dire and extreme situations.

Betty Gabriel as Sophie

Rule #3: Knock ‘em dead in the final act. 

With such a limited time span in which to tell a story, a great many ATMs wait until the last possible minute to reveal their truths, and that is exactly what we find here. The final episode is called “The Answer,” and that’s exactly what it delivers, almost from the very first scene. And here’s where my recommendation of Clickbait grows hazy and complicated. It’s not that the truth of what happened to Nick is unsatisfying. It turns out to be quite compelling. It is also, as Liz Shannon Miller writes in her review of the show for Collider, “a mix of sad and tragic and silly and awful.”

Miller hated the show and offers some valid reason for this, even as she fulfills her function of writing a highly entertaining review: “Do you know how sometimes you’ll taste something so bad that you instinctively look around for someone else to share that gross taste with? . . . Clickbait isn’t like that. It’s so bad, you really should just stay away, because not only is the initial taste pretty bad, the aftertaste is worse, and it lingers.” 

Some of her anger is reserved for the ending, and she gets into a few specifics I won’t share because of their potential for spoiling. Because I myself can’t go that far, even though I know the solution will make some people, especially my mystery-loving friends, angry. All I can say is that it was an especially tough ending for me to watch now, at this time with all that’s going on in the world and in my own life.

At least Clickbait doesn’t jump genres, like Behind Her Eyes, or fall apart at the end, like HBO’s The Undoing, or prove utterly forgettable, like The Stranger and all those other Harlan Coben shows. It doesn’t come close to Mare of Easttown, but you could do worse. Or maybe it’ll just piss you off. Gosh, I don’t know. Some reviewer I turned out to be!!

Meanwhile . . . any suggestions for something good to watch?