'No Man's Land': TV Review

No Man's Land
Sife ELAMINE/Hulu
Renders a specific tragedy weirdly generic.
11/18/2020

Hulu's eight-part series offers an outsider's perspective on the Syrian civil war and a man's perspective on the female fighting unit known as the YPJ.

It's nearly seven hours into Hulu's eight-episode drama No Man's Land before somebody puts Antoine (Felix Moati) in his place.

Antoine has spent the series touristically meandering through the Syrian civil war looking for his sister, becoming increasingly involved in the bloodshed through sheer inertia rather than ideology or empathy.

"This isn't about you, Antoine!" a character finally exclaims.

Unfortunately, No Man's Land absolutely is about Antoine and I haven't been this conscious of a show focusing on the wrong heroes since… well… last week, when I reviewed The Liberator, a heroic-white-savior World War II drama that Netflix has tried to sell as being the story of a particularly diverse company of soldiers.

So don't be fooled into thinking that No Man's Land is, on any level, the story of the YPJ, an elite unit of Kurdish freedom fighters, all women. It's barely, if at all, a story about the Syrian civil war. It's a story of generally stupid international dilettantes lured to muddy the waters in the Syrian civil war, generally making a fraught situation worse. Actually, if No Man's Land truly had the focus to be about that, I might really appreciate it. Instead it's an outsider's look at a very real, very tragic situation that gets lost in a familiar structure and twisty plot points.

Co-created by Ron Leshem (Euphoria), Maria Feldman (False Flag), Eitan Mansuri (When Heroes Fly) and Amit Cohen (False Flag), No Man's Land begins with a series of wordy title cards explaining the basics of the Syrian civil war. From that point on, it's enough to know that the scary men with beards firing rifles into the sky yelling "Allahu Akbar!" are the bad guys.

Antoine is neither a good guy nor a bad guy. He's still mourning his sister Anna (Mélanie Thierry), who went to Egypt to study archeology and died in a bombing. Watching news footage from Syria, Antoine spots a woman in the background of a shot who puts her hair up in the same way Anna used to. Could Anna be alive? And what would Anna be doing with a Syrian resistance force? This is enough for Antoine to journey to Turkey, much to the chagrin of his pilot girlfriend Lorraine (Julia Faure), and sneak his way into Syria. He soon finds himself embedded with a women's protection unit, tagging along in a squad led by Sarya (Souheila Yacoub), a young fighter who grew up partially in Paris, which is convenient because Antoine came to Syria speaking basically none of the languages native to the land.

We're introduced to Nasser (James Krishna Floyd), Iyad (Jo Ben Ayed) and Paul (Dean Ridge), a London-born trio fighting for ISIS, as best I can tell, because they were bullied when they were blue-collar lads.

Tying things together is James Purefoy's Stanley, a mysterious puppet master.

Even though each episode gives a different character's backstory in flashback form, nobody's motivation for participating in this deadly conflict is especially interesting or especially clear — nor does it make much sense why the opposing forces are so welcoming of these questionably motivated foreigners.

There's a story in how the ISIS leaders look at the random Brits joining their rifle-shooting and their "Allahu Akbar!"-ing. That story almost comes into focus with the one-episode introduction of a nationality-denying American who's like ISIS' new social media intern, a character who tip-toes around a very interesting idea of how, for ISIS, global propaganda and perception are bigger than anything they're doing in Syria. And how are the Kurds judging the random Yanks and Francs fighting in their ranks? More specifically, how are the women of the YPJ handling an infusion of foreign men mansplaining their own civil war? Each interloper comes with a different agenda, some representing school boy revolutionary dreams, some just looking to find mercenary uses for their military training. It's all interesting and none of it is sufficiently developed.

No Man's Land tries, and sometimes succeeds, in illustrating relationships between characters through frivolous conversation, but there are bigger issues that are ignored — and instead of making the Syrian civil war universal, the show renders it generic. Series director Oded Ruskin executes several intense action scenes and balances the mixture of flashbacks and present day scenes, but he's prone to falling back on dusty desert action and interchangeable villages that lack any real geography or texture.

Lack of specificity hurts the characters. Yacoub has some wonderful moments as a woman who's proving her devotion to a country that's a stranger to her through violence, but the show undermines her character by reducing her to a perfunctory love interest. Thierry, whose standalone work in the sixth episode is a series highlight, makes an implausible character arc believable only to have the character return to being defined mostly through Antoine's eyes. Because we learn maybe two things about his character as opposed to just one, Floyd is the most interesting of the three Brits, but I never stopped feeling like that storyline was just a pale imitation of National Geographic's The State, a much better-researched miniseries about Brits recruited by ISIS.

For all of its interesting and nuanced details on ISIS and the foreigners it lures, The State was dramatically cumbersome and at least No Man's Land moves quickly, with the last episode setting up several plotlines for a second season. Unfortunately, all of those plotlines are steps further away from anything grounded or illuminating about either the Syrian civil war or the YPJ, which sounds like it would be a great subject for a TV show.

Cast: Félix Moati, Mélanie Thierry, James Purefoy Souheila Yacoub, Joe Ben Ayed, James Floyd, Dean Ridge, Julia Faure, François Caron and Céline Samie

Creators: Ron Leshem, Maria Feldman, Eitan Mansuri and Amit Cohen

Premieres Wednesday, November 18, on Hulu.