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The Guardian - UK

The Essex Serpent: such a slog surely no one will make it past episode one

Subtlety exists, Apple! I am begging you to use it! … Claire Danes as and Tom Hiddleston as Will Ransome in the Essex Serpent.
Subtlety exists, Apple! I am begging you to use it! … Claire Danes as and Tom Hiddleston as Will Ransome in the Essex Serpent. Photograph: Apple

There’s a bit in episode two of The Essex Serpent on Apple TV+ – I am one of the few people on Earth who will ever make it to episode two, so I can tell you this safe in the knowledge that you will never bother to watch as far – where Claire Danes’s Cora and Tom Hiddleston’s Will experience fata morgana, a mirage out at sea.

The central struggle at the heart of The Essex Serpent – or one of the 12 or 14 scattergun themes it has – is Cora’s naturalist, reason-based logic versus preacher Will’s more measured, conservative, faith-based beliefs, and how they weirdly flirt with each other by reading intensely through library books and tiptoeing around whether God is real. The mirage itches that scratch for them both: she has something she can research all the magic out of; he has something he can remember reading about romantically in one of his leather-bound books. They’ll bond over this, eventually, but I won’t watch that far. No one will.

There’s an analogy in here, and I am getting round to it: good TV is a random accomplishment that demands magic as much as it demands the exact right atmospheric conditions. It makes no sense that good TV ever really exists. Everyone involved – the costume designers, the lighting people, the sound recordists, the set scouts – have to get their job exactly right to produce one convincing scene as part of a far wider whole. It requires child actors who can actually act. There are so many whirring parts to make even one frame of legacy television. And as The Essex Serpent proves, even if you get a lot right, it can still be wrong.

Let’s start with the good bits: it is satisfyingly moody – lots of beautiful high shots of flat marshes, fog and, hark, there! Movement in the water! Also, it’s excellently cast: Claire Danes is, as ever, amazing; Frank Dillane is especially good as a slimy, wry, cocky rewritten version of the book’s Dr Garrett; Hayley Squires brings a huge amount of life to what could very easily be a useless side-character who just says “Yes, m’lady” a lot; Tom Hiddleston, as ever, puts in a perfect shift as Tom Hiddleston, where his performance really always relies on whether you can look past the fact that Tom Hiddleston is doing it, which I personally cannot. It looks beautiful. It feels “of a time” in exactly the way the source material demands: Victorian Essex on the verge of an era when old English villages that ran on folklore and hysteria started to cede to the big city sprawl.

But there is something missing at the heart of this one – that 1% of magic that every good TV show demands – and its lack makes this programme a great, long slog. It’s hard to put your finger exactly on what’s wrong: one thing is that the central fear the village is experiencing, the ancient horror of the mythological Essex Serpent, is never really set up enough for you to get why everyone’s hysterical. Maybe it’s because Hiddleston and Danes’s theological squabbling, the dynamite that explodes the entire story, feels less like two intellectual titans locking horns and more like a nervous University Challenge team trying to diplomatically figure out what order they’ll sit in. Maybe it’s too obsessed with being legacy TV to actually be good legacy TV: everyone’s always giving each other very poignant weird gifts, or gazing at one thing while crying about another, or heroically saving a life. And some of the dialogue – Claire Danes wakes up from a traumatic nightmare to be hugged instantly by a maid, who instantly says: “It’s OK. Michael can’t hurt you any more” – I mean, come on. Subtlety exists, Apple! I am begging you to use it!

Listen, I get it. It’s hard to keep making these big-budget limited series where absolute A-list actors agree to come down from film to TV. Every actor wants their Mare of Easttown moment, and every channel and streaming platform wants to give it to them. You buy the rights to the bestselling books and you cast the big-face actors and you get a talented director and you throw millions of pounds at it and you hope that’s enough. But, as The Essex Serpent proves, you still need something else: God, magic, luck, science. Whatever it is, this doesn’t have it.