Airing on: Netflix
When? Thursday May 10th
When you look at how Safe came to be, it’s a really strange brew. Adapted by mystery novelist Harlan Coben (an American), by a British production house, through both Netflix and Canal+ (a French company), with a well-known American star (playing a Brit), and a story set in the U.K., despite the fact it’s only being aired on TV in France.
If you’re a bit baffled by that, watching Safe itself is a similar experience, judging by the first two episodes. You can feel the push and pull of half a dozen styles and creative voices in every frame.
Here’s the set up: Tom (played by Dexter’s own Michael C. Hall), a surgeon and recent widower, learns his eldest daughter Jenny has disappeared after a raging teenage party at the house of entitled rich girl Sia. At the same time, Jenny’s boyfriend’s parents are heading for a break-up and the mother becomes embroiled in a police enquiry led by Sophie (played by Sherlock‘s own Amanda Abbington), a local detective who is also Tom’s new lover. Connections abound between a range of characters, including Tom’s suspiciously affable best mate Pete (played by the ever solid Marc Warren), which all go back to Jenny’s disappearance, something terrible which happened at that party, and quite possibly the haunting shadow of Tom’s wife’s death.
In other words, Safe has a *lot* going on, with an ensemble of characters who are all connected in some way by sex, lies and videotape (that’s almost not a joke, either). Written by Danny Brocklehurst, one of the established cadre of British TV writers as a mentee of the great Paul Abbott on shows such as Linda Green, Clocking Off and Shameless, Safe doesn’t feel like it takes place in a recognisable Britain. This is a strange, soap-opera pocket universe where everyone seems to be at the very least comfortably well off (if not downright rich), often talk to each other in expository ways or with a slickness certainly British people just don’t, and where details of how the world actually works are ignored for narrative expediency.
As someone who works in a school, there is a key plot aspect of episode two in which an established procedure is completely ignored, when it would have just taken a little bit of homework and skilled storytelling to get the details right. In other words, nothing about the world Safe lives in felt believable – had the show invested me in the characters and narrative, the school issue probably wouldn’t have bothered me. Because everything else isn’t working, it yanked me right out of the drama.
Also, and this leapt out right from the first scene, who in the name of almighty heck thought that Michael C. Hall was capable of pulling off a British accent? His casting here is among one of the most bizarre choices in recent memory – why not just let the character be American?? Hall’s accent isn’t Keanu Reeves in Dracula bad (not much is) but it often feels stolid, forced and awkward, hampering the natural charisma Hall does have in spades. Were Netflix happy to put in some money if they could guarantee an American actor with some international appeal? Even though the character clearly would have worked better played by a British actor, given the UK setting? Perhaps. It just smacks of production and financing realities beyond the storytelling.
Granted, on a basic level, the mystery behind Safe is intriguing, because Brocklehurst is carefully trying to unveil the enigma of what happened to Jenny steadily, with new elements coming to light the further Tom’s search for her goes – just like a good mystery novel, perhaps the kind Coben writes I’m sure (I’ve never read his work). Thematically, too, Safe is perfectly topical and current; drug abuse and teenage death is an issue, certainly in Britain, which is never far from the mainstream news, while the problem of sexual relationships between teachers and teenage pupils also is more in the news these days. If Safe is commenting on the parlous disconnect between how we, as a society, protect our children in the fractious age of social media, and how we never really know the people closest to us, it works fine.
Unfortunately, the cliches and sheer tonal disjoint of the whole thing undermines everything Safe is trying to do. Tom, because he’s intelligent and successful, is obviously quite tortured and straight-laced; Sia’s parents are rich but common underneath, the Dad a wisecracking Essex geezer and the Mum a buxom, ex-model-type who obviously married for the money; Sophie is the cynical, hard-bitten lady cop with a broken marriage and a selfish drunk of a husband – she even gets a younger, sexier, intense and slightly perhaps crazed lady cop partner. You’ve seen all this before, quite often, as I say, in soapland. This just has nicer houses and better cars than the residents of Walford or Weatherfield.
Ironically, perhaps the only characters in Safe who show much in the way of being interesting, three-dimensional and complicated human beings are the teenagers, and they’re more of the McGuffin of Safe than anything else at this stage. This could be intentional, and if it turns out to be a commentary on the vacuous self-obsession of middle-aged parents and families, it might actually turn out to be far more worthy than it appears on the face of it.
But, honestly, it’s probably just going to end up with lots of people trying to kill each other by episode eight. The safe move for you? Don’t bother with it.
Episodes 1 & 2:
Safe arrives on Netflix on Thursday May 10th. Let us know what you make of it.