'Departure': TV Review

Christopher Plummer
Stephen Scott/Shaftesbury/Greenpoint Productions/Peacock
Similar enough to '24' to be intriguing, but not similar enough to be good.
9/17/2020

Archie Panjabi and Christopher Plummer lead the cast in Peacock's Canadian-British thriller about the investigation into a doomed international flight.

Ever since the original premiere of Fox's 24 was delayed because of the uncomfortable confluence of the tragic events of 9/11 and the explosion of a plane in the first episode, it has seemed almost inevitable that eventually we'd get a version of 24 in which Jack Bauer's beloved CTU was replaced by the NTSB or some comparably fictionalized transportation investigation bureau.

Nineteen years later, cut to Peacock's six-part thriller Departure, a British-Canadian co-production between Global and Universal TV. I don't remember the last show to so blatantly attempt to absorb that fast-moving 24 DNA, while at the same time failing to correct so many of the things that often made 24 so frustrating. I loved the cast of "Wait, when did I last see them?" stars and occasionally dug the twists and turns, but ultimately by the sixth episode, there were too many convolutions and contrivances for me to have much interest.

Created by Vince Shiao, Departure begins with a flight from New York to London going horribly wrong. Our point-of-entry is a nervous Brit named Madelyn (Rebecca Liddiard), one of several passengers and airline employees we barely meet while, in these difficult quarantine times, being reminded of almost every aspect of air travel that nobody misses.

The plane goes missing — not in a supernatural way, in which case I'd probably have compared it to NBC's Manifest — and Transportation Safety and Investigations Bureau bigwig Howard Lawson (Christopher Freaking Plummer) summons veteran investigator Kendra Malley (Archie Panjabi) onto the case. Kendra is put in charge of locating the remains of Flight 176 and then finding out what happened, though she's been out of the game dealing with ongoing trauma from the accident that killed her husband a year earlier. She joins a team that includes former cop Dom (Kris Holden-Ried), very briefly frustrated because he was supposed to be in charge of this incident, Levi Hall (Peter Mensah) and, recruited from MI5, Janet Friel (Claire Forlani).

The case comes to involve sneering airline bigwigs Ethan Moreau (Dougray Scott) and Pavel Bartok (Sasha Roiz), as well as suspicions directed at the flight's captain (Allan Hawco); a guy (Emilio Doorgasingh) on the terrorist watchlist who gives everybody an excuse to be vaguely (and not so vaguely) Islamophobic; and a nerdy passenger played by Kristian Bruun, whose familiarity from Orphan Black guarantees the character will have at least minor significance.

Credit to the writers that the procedure in Departure absolutely feels like somebody did some research into the chain of responsibility on an investigation into a downed airline, as well as the technical flaws that might be suspected. This means a lot of acronyms and jargon and exposition delivered in boardrooms, traversing hallways and in rooms with snazzy computer and TV monitors.

All too often, it also means that the individual characters are bordering on irrelevant. Other than that Kendra and Dom often work out in the field, there's no real way of telling why either character is good at their job. Individual specialization was surely one of the things 24 was best at, letting us know which characters got information via hacking, who was good with forensics and who excelled at advanced or intermediate torture. Here, I know there's one woman (Tamara Duarte's Nadia) who wants to be involved with wreckage recovery and a completely generic guy (Mark Rendall's Theo) who pokes around back at the office. But the real work of unraveling the mystery happens out in the world — production definitely had access to several small parts of London — where characters can make their way from headquarters to Dublin to the Northern Atlantic in a single cut, because the real-time approach is definitely not carried over from 24.

What is borrowed liberally from 24 are all of the show's editing rhythms, right down to the almost Pavlovian instinct to hear that trademark ticking clock before every commercial break and after every episode-closing cliffhanger. I say "cliffhanger" rather than "surprise," because as the alleged twists come along, they become less and less surprising, especially if you're familiar with TV procedural conventions involving guest stars. The sixth episode is basically one talky twist after another, delivered with no sense of staging or excitement, which is almost a relief after one head-scratchingly poorly choreographed action scene in the fifth episode.

Also lifted from 24, inexplicably, is a narrative-arresting storyline relating to Kendra's petulant son (Alexandre Bourgeois' AJ), whose involvement with the main case is more contrived than anything Kim Bauer ever experienced. AJ — who arrives from Toronto with a girlfriend who promptly gets frustrated that he won't visit London tourist attractions with her even though he's made himself central to a global business conspiracy — is the show's worst character (and Bourgeois' its worst performance), but he'll definitely remind you of other poorly shoehorned-in characters from 24 to Homeland and beyond.

I appreciated that most of the cast, divided evenly between Canadian and British actors, speaks with a matching soft British accent modeled by Plummer, with the key exception of Roiz, whose general European villain accent makes him instantly the most memorable onscreen presence. Panjabi and Holden-Ried convey matching senses of steely cool, lest you're waiting for any Jack Bauer-esque emotional explosions. Forlani and Scott convey matching senses of looming sleaziness. Even coasting a bit (and slumming a lot), Plummer and his smoothly calibrated wisdom are always a pleasure to watch.

The cast and 24-adjacent tone and pace kept me going through six episodes of Departure, continuing a trend of Peacock international originals like Noughts + Crosses and The Capture and Intelligence that have just enough enticing elements to pique curiosity, but lacking the execution needed to actually be good.

Stars: Archie Panjabi, Christopher Plummer, Kris Holden-Ried, Rebecca Liddiard, Peter Mensah, Clair Forlani, Sasha Roiz, Dougray Scott

Creator: Vince Shiao

Director: T.J. Scott

Premieres Thursday, September 17, on Peacock.