Wednesday, February 21, 2018

TV REVIEW: Netflix's 'Seven Seconds'

Netflix will drop the entire first season of its original drama series Seven Seconds on Friday, February 23. The drama stars Clare-Hope Ashitey, Beau Knapp, Michael Mosley, David Lyons, Russell Hornsby, Raul Castillo, Patrick Murney, Zackary Momoh, Michelle Veintimilla and Regina King.

Read on for my thoughts on the new drama after screening its entire first season.

Back when the AMC drama The Killing was closing its first season, series creator Veena Sud got a lot of criticism for not providing a resolution to its season-long mystery. Not repeating that same mistake has been a hallmark of this particular crime genre as it has seen a boom in content over the last few years. The Killing helped start the trend and it lead to a number of really engaging season-long mysteries. Even The Killing learned its lesson and opted to do season-long stories in its later years instead of trying to keep the same conflict going on and on. By then, not many people were watching - though enough were for it to be routinely cancelled and then brought back because first AMC, then Netflix needed the content. Now, these types of shows are more commonplace with the execution being incredibly varied. Some don't justify the amount of time actually spent on the mystery while others burn bright at the start and fizzle out by the end. Sud has returned to the genre with her latest creation Seven Seconds. In the press notes, it's confirmed that this is a season-long anthology series. That means there will be resolution to the central case by the close of the season finale. As someone who has seen the entire ten episode season, I can confirm that to be true. But it should also be interesting to see just how addictive and propulsive this particular show hits with audiences. It could fade in the background because of a subject matter that while important isn't all that original. Or it could be a breakout hit because of it's unflinching approach to the true realities of crimes like this. It's a show that really does make the audience feel. Sometimes, it's very effective with that. And sometimes, it's the most infuriating show on all of television.

The show opens on the central crime. An African American teenager, Brenton Butler, is riding his bike through the park in the middle of winter when he is run down by an SUV driven by an off-duty, white police officer. The identity of the person behind the wheel isn't a mystery. In fact, the audience sees him while Brenton's identity is largely kept a mystery throughout the season. This entire story is told from the perspective of how the aftermath of this crime affects everyone involved. That includes the police officer who hit him, Peter Jablonski (Beau Knapp), and his relationships at work and at home; Brenton's mother, Latrice (Regina King), and father, Isaiah (Russell Hornsby); and the lead prosecutor, K.J. Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey), and investigator, Joe "Fish" Rinaldi (Michael Mosley) assigned to the case. It's a complicated narrative that delves first into the immediate aftermath and potential coverup of the crime and then it builds to a dynamic trial where the racial politics explode on both sides. It's a compelling story. Again, it's a tale ripped from the headlines in order to ignite a larger conversation about racial relations in this country and the way the criminal justice system is broken. The show is pretty blunt in its condemnations of the system. But it's also keenly aware of just how powerful the ideas of perception and the flow of information is in stories such as this.

It's also a huge stylistic choice that Brenton Butler is never really a character of importance in his own story. The narrative keeps asking the audience and the other characters to imagine the life this teenager lived instead of the tragic death he experienced. But the show never uses flashbacks or other storytelling devices to flesh out Brenton's world. It's a life full of secrets. His parents both believe they knew and understood him. And yet, they are left confused about what he was doing in this park so early in the morning. Brenton is played as the biggest mystery of the season. As such, it's clear that Sud and her fellow writers still want to play in a traditional murder mystery type of story. There are pieces that are missing that need to be found in order to provide more context for why this crime has occurred. There are a couple of late in the season revelations that are designed to stun the audience. The first half of the season is telling us the perception of Brenton Butler as told through the media and its lack of interest in empathizing with him and his pain. The second half asks the audience to empathize with Brenton without seeing his personal journey. We are seeing his pain through the aftermath of Latrice and Isaiah's lives and marriage. This case tests their bond. It's quite destructive to watch. Latrice was the overly caring mother who needs to act when the system won't. Isaiah is the emotionally distant father who refuses to believe key details about who his son actually was. Regina King and Russell Hornsby deliver some powerful performances here. It wouldn't be surprising in the slightest to see King back in the Emmy conversation after several wins over the last few years. But it's through these characters that we see Brenton's life reflected back to us which is a choice that has its pluses and minuses as the story goes along.

There's also the really annoying fact that the majority of these episodes run well over an hour long. Most of the episodes hover around the sixty minute mark. The premiere is actually the shortest episode of the season with the finale clocking in at close to 80 minutes. That won't make this an easy binge. It's also further proof that Netflix may not be offering enough notes to its content creators in the hopes of making the shows actually better. There's no reason for any episode of this show to extend past 60 minutes. Every episode could trim about 5 minutes of story off without really losing anything. The show wants to get lost in the procedural aspects of this investigation. It sees the ins and outs of the investigation and subsequent trial. It's thrilling to watch for fans of the procedural process. But there are also a couple of subplots that never really amount to much by the end of the run. Isaiah's brother, Seth (Zackary Momoh), returns home after spending ten years in the Air Force the day of Brenton's accident. He spends the rest of the season trying to decide if he helps the investigation or if he should re-enlist to find purpose or if he should return to the gang that has always looked out for him. Similarly, Jablonski's police unit is an elite drug task force that may be running an illegal operation with the local gang. It's a story that has the feeling of being important for the longest time. But it mostly has a lackluster conclusion in the way that it ties back into everything.

When the show works though, it can be fantastic. Clare-Hope Ashitey is the real standout performer here. She's unequivocally playing the lead role. Yes, King and Hornsby flirt with that position as well. But K.J. Harper is the lead prosecutor who flitters through everything. It's also a character that a woman of color typically doesn't get to play. K.J. is a high-functioning alcoholic. It's a significant problem throughout the season that does generate a number of problems. But she is still able to be a competent prosecutor capable of delivering an impassioned speech at a moment's notice. It's a star-making vehicle for Ashitey. She would feel right at home on a Shonda Rhimes show. That's just how good and specific to this world she actually is. Yes, it's a character that flirts with melodrama a little too much as well. She has such a dysfunctional relationship with sex and men that is never handled all that well or in a compelling way. But Ashitey draws the audience into the character and makes us believe in the validity of this case even when the evidence and the systemic abuse of the law is working against her. She's passionate and inspired in a way that demands the audience to take notice.

It will be impossible to feel nothing while watching Seven Seconds. It's a story designed to infuriate the audience. It's playing the situation to the true reality. As such, it's maddening to see just how much freedom that the white characters have despite being under suspicion of some serious crimes. The consequences are minimal for them while extremely daunting for the people of color. It's infuriating to see the uphill battle that comes from trying to get to the truth of what happened. But a show designed in such way is also annoying to watch because it's painfully clear that the show is manipulating the audience to have these reactions. Plus, there are some instances where it's annoying purely because the characters are doing things out of plot necessity instead of what they would normally do. It's an infuriating show that may benefit from a binge and experiencing the emotions all at once. But again, it's a difficult binge because of the time commitment. It's a season that tries to linger on the difficult subject matter. It's a story that starts in a profound place and ends in one too. The reaction to it will be the true test of its appeal. It's a difficult story. It's not effective in some critical ways. But it's still compulsive in a way where the audience is intrigued to see just how this case will possibly be resolve and if it's okay to hope for the best possible outcome.