This The Lazarus Project review is spoiler-free and based on episodes one to four of eight.
With its top-secret organisation, globe-trotting car chases, shoot-outs, time-loops and kick-ass agents saving the world, The Lazarus Project may sound like the stuff of James Bond or Fox TV, but this Sky series is no escapist romp. Instead of distracting from the world’s problems, it brings them into focus: Pandemics. Wars. Nuclear annihilation. The quiet parade of continual threats to mortal life that make collapsing into bed at the end of each day a victory if you only let yourself think about it…
App designer George Addo (Paapa Essiedu) until now, has never let himself think about it. He’s an easy-going plodder who shares a flat with girlfriend Sarah (Charly Clive) and, were he not the lead character in this ambitious series, would likely contentedly tick off life’s milestones until his final breath. That’s how it goes until the day George wakes up to find the calendar has inexplicably rewound six months. Even more inexplicably, nobody else appears to have noticed. Is George losing it, or is Something Else going on?
Something Else is going on and the Lazarus Project is behind it. Everyman George has stumbled upon an earth-shattering secret that throws him into a heightened world of apocalyptic threat and super-villains. Can he slot in among them? And what will be the human cost of knowing what he knows?
The first thing (of many) that The Lazarus Project does right is casting Paapa Essiedu as its lead. The Royal Shakespeare Company, I May Destroy You and Gangs of London actor has what feels like effortless charm but is likely the result of careful study and attention to detail. As our doorway into this heightened world, he’s entirely believable and puts you instantly on his character’s side. George’s understated confusion faced with the intensity and solemnity of Lazarus agents is funny and relatable. He’s us, and soon – very soon, this show does not mess about when it comes to escalation and pace – he’s faced with a life-changing dilemma.
If Essiedu is great, then the rest of the cast is equally well chosen. Vigil and Bodyguard’s Anjli Mohindra is a cool customer as George’s recruiting officer into Lazarus. Caroline Quentin plays an M-like boss. Rudi Dharmalingam is unrecognisable from the sweetly nerdy character he played in BBC One’s The Split, and here is the darkly tormented Shiv. Tom Burke (Strike, The Souvenir) and Vinette Robinson (Boiling Point, A Christmas Carol) entirely steal later episodes as the show’s focus pivots from character to character. Add in Charly Clive and Brian Gleeson and it’s a strong ensemble.
The next masterstroke is how creator Joe Barton (Giri/Haji, The Ritual) pitches his scripts’ tone. The project was originally titled ‘Extinction’ but renamed to avoid feeling too bleak. The world being what it is right now, care has clearly been taken here to lift what could be an onslaught of real-life trauma, though that being said, episode three still contains one of the most harrowing sequences on TV in years.
Given the intensity and gravity of the subject matter, it’s astonishing that the four episodes available to preview never become suffocating. A bolt of real-world irreverence is shot through even the most solemn exchanges, undercutting what could in other hands be extremely ‘I’ve been expecting you, Mr Bond’ dialogue. Barton’s speech here foregrounds character over situation, and is always ready with a leavening, humanising touch.
It’s a good job the main characters are written and performed as emotionally accessible as they are, because the chronology is – for want of a better word – a headache. Episode two’s time loops will test anyone not blessed with the power of logic, but even if you lose track of which iteration we’re on, the characters will guide you in like runway landing lights.
Either that, or you’ll be so diverted by the action you won’t think too hard about the time loop stuff. The Lazarus Project is a big, robust sci-fi thriller with proper action scenes. Well-directed shoot-outs, car chases, punch-ups, sniper attacks and on-foot pursuits… the action is good, meaty and regularly delivered. It’s pacy and exhilarating without suffering from loud, bangy attention deficit disorder. The dynamic range from quiet moments to loud, impressive set pieces is handled well.
Alongside the intrigue, humour, action and enjoyable characters are big questions, such as those posed in similarly cool, ambitious British drama Utopia by similarly cool, ambitious British writer Dennis Kelly almost a decade ago: what’s the value of a life? How about eight billion lives? What might make you sacrifice one for the other? In short, this ambitious Sky thriller is the complete blockbuster package.
All eight episodes of The Lazarus Project are available to stream on NOW and Sky Go in the UK.