This spoiler-free review is based on the first two episodes.
There’s a Woody the Woodpecker cartoon where Woody starts to fall from a height, then double takes, flaps his wings and soars into the sky saying, ‘Hey! I forgot I was a bird!’
Every so often, TV pulls the same trick. It goes along, airing detective shows and cooking shows and superhero shows and property programmes, falling, falling, falling… and then it suddenly remembers, ‘Hey! I forgot I was Television! I’m a box of mad, uncontainable dream magic conjured by imagination wizards who send stories through the air! Hop it, Gregg Wallace. I’ve got flying to do.’
And then it airs something like The Third Day, which is untethered by genre or tradition or a trackable plot, and unlike anything you’ve seen on television for a long, long time. (After that, TV usually reverts to the rules, and those viewers whose brains are tickled by Weird Shit are forced back into the world of books or experimental theatre or watching Countdown on mute while drinking Benylin and playing a badly scratched Carmina Burana LP.)
The Third Day: Summer is a trip. It’s a three-episode TV story which will be followed by 12-hour immersive live-streamed theatre event, Autumn, and then concluded by Winter, another three-episode continuation with a different lead, writers and director. The idea was conceived by playwright and screenwriter Dennis Kelly, and Felix Barrett, the artistic director of Punchdrunk, the UK theatre company that does exactly this kind of thing – formal experimentation embrined in newness and adventure.
Jude Law leads the first three episodes as Sam, a mainlander who becomes trapped on the remote British island of Osea when he stumbles upon a situation involving an island girl. Despite some extremely pressing reasons to return home, Sam is forced to remain on Osea (a real, privately owned island in an Essex estuary where the series was filmed) and finds himself drawn to its strange power.
When Sam arrives, Osea is preparing to hold a festival involving some unusual traditions, and he soon gets the sense that the islanders are keeping things from him. His own past becomes tangled with the present, and the result is unpredictable and expressive and difficult to pin down. Is the island as sinister as it seems, or is Sam’s personal history distorting his perception? What is putting him in more danger – the island, or his own mind?
That’s just the hand-wavy plot and premise. The Third Day is more focused on Law’s compelling performance, which bends willow-like from everyman to grief-stricken to horror victim and back again. As our eyes and ears on Osea, the island and its strange rites are filtered through his perspective, keeping us tantalisingly – and sometimes frustratingly – bound to what appears to be an increasingly unreliable narrator. “Don’t you find this all a bit fucking weird?” he asks a character in episode two. Just a bit, Sam, yeah, but surely that’s the point.
Joining Law in the cast is Katherine Waterston as fellow tourist Jess, the closest Sam comes to an ally. Paddy Considine and Emily Watson play the Martins, landlords of The Oyster pub. They’re a couple of grotesques played with a combination of unsettling comedy and sinister mystery. What explains the circle of salt on the carpet of their guest bathroom? What lies beneath Considine’s matey smiles and desperate friendliness? The performances are heightened and as unnatural as everything else on the island.
The Third Day is weird-fic that evokes memories of other strange stories about freaky communities in isolated locations with unsettling traditions and sinister secrets. Unusual as it might be in today’s TV schedules, it does have a niche among ‘outsider trapped in foreign nightmare’ films like Wake in Fright or The Wicker Man, Don’t Look Now, or more recently, Midsommar.
Atmosphere-wise, if you were around for Utopia, the previous TV collaboration between writer Dennis Kelly, director Marc Munden and composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer, you’ll recognise the territory: a paranoiac mystery told with unnaturally intense colour, startling landscapes and a drone-buzz score haunted by human voices. Utopia was a conspiracy thriller that examined the ‘greater good’ problem of utilitarianism as applied to the existential crisis of global overpopulation. The Third Day is…?
After two of the three Summer episodes, it’s still not quite clear. It starts as a contemporary thriller but that carapace quickly slides off to expose a sticky, pulsating heart. It’s a mystery that lurches towards folk horror imagery, but is it a horror? An allegory? Satire? A dreamscape? It’s about grief, certainly, but is it a psychological drama?
All of the above, is the best assessment, and captivating with it. If you find that answer irksome and have low mileage for trippy genre-bending edited with the space-jumping logic of dreams, then The Third Day may not be for you. Give in to where it wants to take you though, turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, and whatever else happens, it’ll be a distinctive and memorable flight.
The Third Day: Summer continues on HBO on Monday the 21st of September and on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV on Tuesday the 22nd of September.