'Seven Seconds': TV Review

A well-acted wallow in murder and misery.
2/23/2018

Regina King stars in 'The Killing' creator Veena Sud's latest overly somber story of a murder investigation in poor weather, a 10-hour Netflix drama that feels even longer.

The second episode of Netflix's Seven Seconds was directed by the great Jonathan Demme, who died last April. It would seem that this will be the last credit for the helmer of The Silence of the Lambs, Something Wild, several of the greatest music documentaries ever made and some terrific episodes of television shows including Enlightened and The Killing.

This is not a mere footnote, and it's at least one reason to pay attention to Seven Seconds, a 10-hour-plus drama that might otherwise have been the somber punchline to a joke that begins with, "The Killing, American Crime, The Shield and a mediocre episode of Law & Order walk into a bar…"

Inspired loosely and probably irrelevantly by the Russian film The Major, Seven Seconds was developed for Netflix by The Killing creator Veena Sud as a continuation of her fascination with watching mismatched crime-solving duos investigating murders in inclement weather.

For Seven Seconds, Sud has moved the action from Seattle to Jersey City, New Jersey, and, seemingly having learned a lesson from the "Who Killed Rosie Larsen?" resolution frustration that upset some fans, it's a mystery that isn't really a mystery at all. In the opening scene, police officer Peter Jablonski (Beau Knapp), distracted by a phone call from his pregnant wife and by winter snow, strikes an African-American teen on a bike. At the urging of his squad leader Mike DiAngelo (David Lyons) and colleagues Osorio (Raul Castillo) and Wilcox (Patrick Murney), he's encouraged to leave the boy to die and cover up the crime on the grounds that even an accidental homicide of this type could cause the community to erupt in violence. It's not a whodunit. We know exactly who did it, why they did it and how it was done.

We know things, however, that prosecutor K.J. Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey) and homicide detective Joe "Fish" Rinaldi (Michael Mosley) do not know, and they spend several episodes trying to solve the crime. K.J. and Fish are an archetypal Veena Sud investigating partnership, a coastally transplanted blend of Linden and Holder from The Killing. He's wisecracking, caught up in a custody battle and prone to collecting strays. She's alcoholic, caught up in an inappropriate relationship and prone to singing karaoke. They bicker and butt heads, and some susceptible viewers will want them to fall in love.

Meanwhile, the boy's parents (Regina King and Russell Hornsby) search for solace and for answers, and his uncle (Zackary Momoh) finds himself in a third-rate knockoff of The Wire after returning home from military service.

The old Mark Twain quote about how if you don't like the weather in New England just wait a few minutes also applies to the storytelling for Seven Seconds. Rather than ending episodes with plot-driven cliffhangers, Sud and the writers dragged me along with much larger, "Wait, so what's the series going to be from here?" questions. The answers tend to have grains of texture and intrigue, before being ultimately bogged down by familiarity over whether the show is being a grimy cop procedural, a grim domestic melodrama, a gritty "This squad is the only family you've got!" police corruption thriller or, for the last few episodes, a clunky courtroom drama in which neither participating lawyer ever got that "Don't ask a question if you don't already know the answer" lecture that comes early in basically every legal series. There is some attempt to do city portraiture, some nods to the state of police-community relations in a post-Ferguson world and some critique of the challenges faced by returning veterans, all subservient to the show's genre-switching.

Especially in the courtroom scenes, but really throughout, too much of the forward momentum of Seven Seconds relies on characters doing dumb things only justified by the fact that the typical Veena Sud character is introduced with a prominent self-destructive streak meant to head off any, "Why are you doing that?!?" incredulity. The series starts off in a place of tragedy and, over 10 episodes, wallows along as characters screw things up worse and worse. The moroseness is aggressive and often regressive, as I could point to multiple episodes that needn't be watched at all, and I could even more easily point to the episodic runtimes of the back-half of the season, all episodes over an hour, in which each segment could have benefited from liberal trimming or reshaping or at least somebody in a Netflix development office saying, "Yeah, we know Jersey City has a great view of the Statue of Liberty, but could we have five shots with Lady Liberty in the background instead of 10?"

Following Sud's wallowing are pilot director Gavin O'Connor and an all-star team of cable helmers starting with Demme and continuing with the likes of Jon Amiel, Ernest Dickerson, Ed Bianchi and Victoria Mahoney. The show is all snow and concrete, peppered with browns and grays and, for police purposes, dark blues. From homes to hospitals to diners, every room is only half-lit, as if urban blight were forcing people to save on their power bills. This isn't a palette that makes room for bright colors, and the performances have been directed to match, descending spirals of grief and frustration.

TV shows enjoy making King suffer and she's exceptional at modulating the volume of her misery, never leaning excessively on sobbing or overly external performing. She's got a great foil in Hornsby, who infuses his character with a wounded dignity like something out of an August Wilson play.

Although she struggles a bit with her accent as the series becomes more and more monologue-driven, Ashitey does well to hold together a character whose tendency toward self-inflicted wounds becomes repetitive. She works well with Mosley, making the most of the only levity and, frankly, only tonal variation in the entire series, but anybody investing in these two coupling up is watching the show wrong.

Playing refugees from every shady police procedural ever made, Castillo, Murney and Knapp try hard to engender empathy and layers that the plot sometimes forgets to give them, with Lyons as a real standout as the Aussie actor continues a transition from the leading man NBC repeatedly tried to make him into the character actor he clearly wants to be.

Also making strong impressions are Nadia Alexander, as a social media loving teen with a drug problem, and Gretchen Mol, making the most of her part as a steely defense attorney in the show's otherwise ungainly legal detour.

Really, Seven Seconds is full of good performances and interesting, rarely fully developed, ideas, and it changes forms so frequently that I maintained curiosity through the frequent spaces that dragged. It's a grind, but it's the same kind of grind as The Killing, a show with many fans that ultimately tired me out time and time again.

Cast: Clare-Hope Ashitey, Regina King, Beau Knapp, David Lyons, Michael Mosley, Russell Hornsby, Zackary Momoh, Raul Castillo, Patrick Murney, Michelle Veintimilla
Creator: Veena Sud
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)

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