Critic's Notebook: Netflix's 'The I-Land' — Anatomy of a Fascinating Disaster

The I-Land_Season 1 _Episode 4-Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Netflix

Because I made it through the first 10 minutes of Netflix's new limited series The I-Land, I endeavored to make it through the first episode. Because I made it through the first episode, I endeavored to make it through all seven episodes. Because I made it through all seven episodes, I'm writing a review of The I-Land. To paraphrase J. Robert Oppenheimer paraphrasing the Bhagavad Gita: Now I am become the sunk cost fallacy, the destroyer of free time. Eventually I'm going to have to write a book about The I-Land.

And I would write that book, too! Netflix's The I-Land is awful, but it's the kind of awful that leaves me with questions at every turn. No aspect of The I-Land works, and every bad aspect builds on the bad aspects before in a way that makes it pretty clear that nobody involved could have been under any misapprehensions about the quality of the endeavor. The nicest and most generous way of looking at The I-Land is to view it as the ill-fated first pancake from the batch coming out of a new production facility in the Dominican Republic, reinforcing and feeding the infrastructure in the hopes that future projects will benefit. You're supposed to throw the first pancake away, or bury it under the other pancakes, but this wasn't one of those international acquisitions that Netflix sneaks onto the service for word-of-mouth discovery. Netflix even did a trailer for The I-Land, a great trailer parodying the Fyre Island Instagram promotional video, so Netflix's marketing department need feel no shame other than making me watch this debacle, which is their job. And this is mine.

Premise is the only level on which The I-Land works and that, presumably, was the gateway for everything else. Think Lost, only with a fundamental misunderstanding of how Lost handled character development, mythology, flashback structure, theme and ensemble-building. The I-Land begins with 10 people waking up on a tropical beach. The strangers are all young, attractive and at least three of them are verging on interchangeable for reasons nobody acknowledges or seems aware of. They don't remember who they are or how they got there. They soon come to realize they're each harboring a deep, dark secret, which is only fair because the island isn't what it appears to be, either. Soon people are dying, getting sexually assaulted and beginning to uncover various truths about themselves and their predicament. There's a shark attack, too. Or at least a "shark" "attack."

Even that premise level, which I admit isn't bad, comes muddied. Creation of The I-Land is credited to one Anthony Salter. It's his only credit on the series and his only credit period. Online, he doesn't exist. It's a puzzlement. Though Salter created The I-Land, the series was primarily written and showrun by Neil LaBute who, whether you've liked or hated his plays or movies or prior TV projects, is surely a figure worthy of consideration. And LaBute wasn't just a hit-and-run name on the pilot here. He wrote the first four episodes, solo. He directed the pilot.

If one wants to reach, it's possible to parse The I-Land in a way that makes it fit into LaBute's body of work, to tie it into the meditations on power and the abuses of power that he thinks (perhaps not incorrectly) are integral to human behavior and often supersede more conventionally examined structures like gender and sexuality. The speed with which the residents of The I-Land skip past general curiosity and get to flirting and abusing each other is actually vintage Neil LaBute, at least as a surface gloss. Whatever interest might be piqued by viewing the show through an In the Company of Men-shaped prism — the movie was, at the time, incorrectly accused of misogyny when it is much more purely misanthropic — wears off in a hurry because The I-Land runs out of interest in its character interactions and rushes off into flimsy science-fiction explanations for the situation and, after a while, it forgets about more than half of its main characters, leaving them to either be killed off without fanfare or to be left on another island where they mistake their fingers for chicken soup.

Also, just because I can do analysis explaining how LaBute-ian it is, this is just a wretched line of dialogue: "Oh and... by the way. I wasn't trying to rape you. There's no such thing like that in a place like this. There's just sex and no sex. We didn't have any sex."

And guess what? That's far from the worst line of dialogue on the show. There are long, stagnated conversations driven by repetition and poorly rendered cadences that you'd call "theatrical" were they not being given to castaways sitting on a beach actively asking each other why there isn't more urgency while at the same time having back-and-forths that the series editors were completely incapable of cutting up in an aesthetically pleasing manner. The conversations are badly composed. The narrative feels gutted. The action is incoherent, with the exception of one three-minute fight in the penultimate episode, a scene so much more lively than anything else on the show that I wonder if it was directed, shot and cut by somebody completely different as part of a desperate piece of postproduction salvaging.

By the last few episodes, The I-Land chapters come in at around 38 minutes, as if the mandate shifted from "Attempted storytelling" to "Attempted escape." The gutting of those last few episodes is part of how The I-Land manages to become actively offensive in its homestretch, because it treats some serious issues with so little consideration or depth that nobody bothered to include trigger warnings in front of episodes, practically shrugging, "Sure, it includes a mass shooting, but... whatever" and "Sure, this episode contains domestic violence but... whatever." It's worse than if it attempted nothing topical at all.

Going back, I guess I can see how the premise and LaBute's name (and the Netflix brand) were able to lure an interesting cast to The I-Land. The ranks of castaways include Kate Bosworth and Alex Pettyfer, who both have been actively treated as movie stars in the very recent past, and the main character, alleged murderer and military veteran Chase, is played by Natalie Martinez, who has toplined several broadcast TV shows over the years. None of the recognizable actors elevate the material. Pettyfer makes it actively worse, flattening the already flat dialogue until it becomes something robotic and unrecognizably human. Bosworth makes her scenes something weird and different, like an overheated Tennessee Williams play that nobody else was warned they were participating in. And Martinez? Man, she's trying hard. The only actor in the cast who I'd want to single out positively would be Bruce McGill, sporting a shiny warden's star that production must have plucked from a Cracker Jack box and gleeful ranting and raving and violating the memo I assume the rest of the cast received to be affectless at every turn.

At least this was an opportunity for everybody else to get a nice tropical vacation? The Dominican Republic looks great, which isn't to say that The I-Land is beautifully shot. Quite the opposite. I can tell that the beaches are pretty and the foliage lush, and yet still wonder if production had a limited beach-access window and other scenes were done in a soundstage sandbox in front of a green screen. The I-Land looks cheap, and that's before you get to later episodes shot in a meekly decorated indoor facility in which apparently nobody tested audio levels because the seventh episode — a finale that leaves enough cliffhangers to make Netflix's designating the show as a "limited series" ring false — sounds like it was recorded in a dented tuna fish can. Every level of the show is a miss, and not the kind of miss that points to lack of effort.

I return, in concluding, to my confidence that everybody involved must have known this wasn't going well. Netflix gives straight-to-series orders and you need look no further than this show for an illustration of why that's not always a great idea. No network or service that makes decisions based on pilots ever would have picked up The I-Land off of this prototype. Even with this cast, a broadcast network or a Showtime or a Hulu would have looked at the pilot and said, "OK, this isn't working, you've made a porn parody of Lost without the sex," and that would have been that. As flawed as it is, the money-wasting American TV model is designed so that head-scratchers like this one disappear.

Netflix didn't exactly launch The I-Land with great pride. It got a rare Thursday premiere, allowing it to be separate from Netflix's big Friday offering, the mostly excellent Unbelievable. That won't stop the inevitable questions about why the streamer thought its money was better spent here than another season of The OA or another season of One Day at a Time or comfortable new chairs for a conference room. I wonder those things also, but they're just the start of the things that I wonder about The I-Land. It's one of the worst shows I've ever seen and, in that, one of the most fascinating.

I'm here to work on the oral history as soon as anybody is ready to be candid!