‘The Essex Serpent’: Dreary detours stop the momentum of classy but murky Apple TV+ series
Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston star in the story of a town convinced a water monster is doing the devil’s work.
Something gloomy this way comes.
The Apple TV+ limited series “The Essex Serpent” has all the earmarks of a prestige, awards-buzz project, from its roots as an esteemed novel by Sarah Perry to the presence of acclaimed actors Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston to the Victorian-era setting and the impressively staged location sequences shot in quintessentially British towns and villages such as Alresford, Brightlingsea and North Fambridge. And there’s a pretty great hook in that it’s about a recently widowed woman escaping her abusive past and spending time in a remote village in Essex that may or may not be under siege from a legendary sea serpent that represents Satan.
Ooh, opportunities for symbolism and modern-day parallels about group fear and mass panic and high anxiety.
A series premiering with two episodes Friday on Apple TV+ and continuing with a new episode each Friday through June 10.
Alas. Despite the intriguing setup, the sharp direction and the earnest performances, “The Essex Serpent” is a six-episode slog through dramatically murky and not particularly deep waters. It spends too much time bogged down in various melodramatic romantic entanglements while we keep waiting for a return to the paranoid hysteria gripping a town caught up in a mob mentality that has most of its citizens believing there’s actually a menacing sea serpent in the waters, exacting violent and horrific revenge on those who dare sin against the Lord.
We saw a somewhat similar scenario play out in last year’s Netflix offering “Midnight Mass,” but whereas that series never took its foot off the pedal and carried our interest all the way through to the brutal and spiritually dark end, “The Essex Serpent” is restrained to the point of stifling and regularly undercuts its own impact with side detours that fail to grab our interest. Also, just about every major character in this story is miserable; even when they’re declaring their love or expressing their happiness, they often look and sound dejected. It’s a big ask to keep us invested in their respective fates.
Claire Danes, capably handling the British accent and believably slipping into the 1890s time period, is well-cast as the intense and resilient Cora Seaborne, who was able to escape an abusive marriage only after her husband’s death. On vacation in the not-particularly-welcoming and perpetually cloudy county of Essex with her 11-year old, autistic son, Francis (Caspar Griffiths), and her nanny and confidante, Martha (Hayley Squires), Cora becomes intrigued by reports of the reawakening of the Essex Serpent, a mystical sea dragon said to be an agent of the devil himself. When a local girl turns up dead on the shore, it’s “Jaws” time, as many of the residents work themselves into a frenzy, wonder when the next attack will come and prepare for the worst, while a few try to keep the calm.
An amateur paleontologist, Cora posits that the beast actually could be a real creature—some form of water dinosaur that managed to survive extinction. (You go, Cora.) Another reason for Cora to consider a long-term stay or even a permanent move to Essex: Against her better judgment, she has fallen in love with the dashing local vicar, the Rev. Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston from “Loki”), whose longing glances at Cora indicate he’s starting to feel the same way, even though he’s devoted to his kindly and lovely and saintly wife, Stella (Clemence Poesy), who has a troubling cough, and seeing as how we’re in 1890s England, you know that troubling cough is nothing but … trouble.
The romantic waters are further clouded by one Dr. Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), a dashing and cocky surgeon from London who has fallen in love with Cora, though his courtship is more akin to uncomfortable pressuring than true romance. Garrett is a thoroughly unlikable character, and subplots involving his experimental heart surgery techniques and a brutal setback he suffers only serve to take us further from the potentially crazy-ass developments in Essex. Martha is a much more endearing character, but her Socialist political activism is another diversion that falls short of riveting.
“The Essex Serpent” occasionally delivers some truly chilling scenes, e.g., when virtually every child in the schoolhouse seems possessed by a Satanic spell, or when Cora finds herself ostracized by most of the townsfolk because many blame her for the return of the beast (if the beast has actually returned or is even real), but just when we’re feeling a sense of excellent dread and hoping for the possibility of some wickedly insane confrontations and resolutions, there’s a sudden swerve in a less interesting direction. This “Serpent” slithers away without leaving much of an impact.