This review contains spoilers.
Prey, Intruders, Trauma, and now Strangers… John Simm’s most constant co-star these past years has been the fug of crumpled grief. Reflected watery-eyed in the glass of a mortuary window is starting to feel like the actor’s natural habitat.
In new ITV thriller, Simm plays a university lecturer whose wife is killed in a road accident in Hong Kong in the opening few minutes of the first episode. In the hour’s closing few minutes, we’re shown the gunshot wound in her post-autopsy chest. She didn’t die in an accident; it was an assassination. But who wanted to kill her, and why?
Those aren’t the only questions Jonah (Simm) has about his wife Megan (Dervla Kirwan). There’s also the matter of her other husband David (Anthony Chau-Sang Wong) and the student daughter Lau (Katie Leung) that Jonah didn’t know existed. Dividing her life between two husbands and two continents for years, just what had Megan been playing at?
If you feel moved to find out, the remaining episodes will air on ITV on Mondays for the next seven weeks. Expect conspiracy, twists and more attractive shots of Hong Kong skylines than in the glossy brochures tucked into the back-of-the-seat pocket of a Cathay Pacific Airline flight.
Strangers seems to be banking on the draw of its exotic setting. Key scenes take place on noisy city streets, or on chic rooftop bars with neon-lit skyscrapers as a backdrop. The same goes for non-key scenes, such as the one in which Jonah buys a phone charger at the local market (following a conversation in which he asks where to buy a phone charger and is told ‘at the local market’), or the one in which he cosies up with Emilia Fox’s consulate worker Sally in an expensive bar in order to ask for an extension to his stay. Pains have been taken to ensure the bright lights and waving-paw lucky kitties of Hong Kong feature heavily. So heavily in fact, I’ll bet you a pound that somewhere in the press bumf, Hong Kong has been described as another character in the show.
That’s one more than I counted in the first episode.
Jonah spent most of the first hour on valium, but the rest of them don’t have the same excuse. For such a heightened situation, the reactions are remarkably lethargic. “Why aren’t you angry?” Jonah asks David, after learning of his counterpart’s existence for the first time. “What’s the point,” shrugs David, “she’s gone.”
The understatement would be comic if it felt deliberate. “Honestly, this whole trip is turning into a nightmare” says David to Sally, as if he were talking about some lost luggage and a delayed flight rather than a journey to collect his wife’s corpse on which he discovered she was a decades-long bigamist and became embroiled in a tortuous conspiracy.
“It seems everyone knew apart from me,” Jonah says Eeyoreishly, when Sally admits that she knows about Megan’s other husband. I always used to wonder why she liked Hong Kong so much, he continues, “but now of course, it all makes sense.” Does it?
Exchange after exchange plays out with the naturalism and spark of a videogame cutscene. Hoodlum One counts the bundle of cash he’s been handed for a stolen passport and says, “Soon I will have enough to get me to the UK.” “Why go all the way to the UK,” says Hoodlum Two, “you can make a better future here.” Father-daughter pair David and Lau communicate in the same stilted style. “You have to do it now, after your mother just died?” David complains to his activist daughter. “Today? Seriously? Mum’s just died” the activist daughter complains to her dad, as if both are afflicted by short-term memory failure.
There’s so much unnecessary repetition in the sparse dialogue that the script could have been written with an accompanying workbook as an adult literacy aide. Thrillers are rarely verbose, nor do they need to be, but this one appears to have lost respect for its audience’s intelligence along the way. And when a TV show doesn’t respect you as a viewer, you don’t feel you owe it anything much in return.
Strangers continues next Monday at 9pm on ITV.