“The Stranger” Locks Itself in Its Own Mystery Box
Netflix’s latest mini-series based on a Harlan Coben novel of the same is a show that clearly wants to copy the formula that made Broadchurch an incredibly acclaimed series not so long ago.
Set in a small town in the UK? Check. A storyline involving kids doing suspicious stuff? Check. A cynical detective? Check. A cast of underrated British actors? Check. Eight episode season? Check. Excellent storytelling with a satisfying, yet somber conclusion? Well… no, not really.
SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST 2 EPISODES OF THE STRANGER AHEAD
The Stranger’s main problem is that it relies on J.J. Abrams-style mystery boxes to drive the season forward. While Broadchurch sees a single horrible event launch an unstoppable snowball of consequences that rips the small town apart, The Stranger is very confused as to what its core mystery is supposed to be.
The show opens with a shot of a teenager running through a forest, only to transition into an obnoxiously bland credit sequence before finally letting us meet our protagonist, Adam.
While Adam is taking care of his younger son at his football club’s team try-outs, he’s approached by the eponymous Stranger, who reveals to him that his wife Corinne faked a pregnancy and miscarriage. With Corinne away on a work trip, Adam digs deep into the provided informational and finds that the mysterious woman was telling the truth.
Soon after that, we’re introduced to Detective Sergeant Johanna Griffin, a recently-separated detective on the brink of retirement from the force who has just been called in to investigate the sudden appearance of a headless alpaca on the town’s streets.
Eventually, the alpaca chase leads her to discover the teenager from the opening shot of the show in the forest unconscious, while Corinne mysteriously vanishes after Adam confronts her with his discovery. This sets us up for the rest of the season.
Therein lies the problem with The Stranger. From the first episode, we have three different mysteries to analyze. Who is The Stranger? Where’d Corinne go and why’d she fake the pregnancy? What happened to that kid?
Later on in the series, the screenwriters dump another big mystery involving murder, blackmail and a crooked cop, all while the others remain largely unresolved.
With so many mysteries in play, you would expect them to all be connected, wouldn’t you? While they are connected through the characters involved, as they should be in any small-town thriller, these mysteries are revealed to be cynical attempts at capturing the viewer’s attention, rather than actually satisfying stories.
This is where The Stranger totally misses the mark. While the actors involved are undoubtedly talented, their characters are mostly extremely bland and devoid of nuance, starting with the lead.
While Richard Armitage’s performance is admirable given what he’s given to work with, Adam is defeated by blandness. Not intentional blandness, like the one found in Gone Girl, either.
He’s just the perfect husband, except for one little fling that really didn’t matter that much, he’s a good dad, everybody in the community likes him, he’s helping a man defend his home against evil property developers. There isn’t really anything interesting about this character, he’s a white-collar action hero straight out of the Hollywood Book of Tired Tropes.
What I loved about Broadchurch was how it focused on the human element of a small-town whodunnit. The Stranger forgoes the exploration of that human element in favour of red herrings, pointless action sequence and a few filler episodes that don’t really go anywhere in the long run.
All of this makes the show as a glorified 8-hour long popcorn flick that never lives up to what it wanted to be. When the show finally opens its Mystery Box, it turns out that it was full of air all along. While opening it was fun at times, I still feel like I could’ve spent the time watching something more worthwhile.
Final Verdict: Watch it if you’re bored at work. Or in the background.