'The Third Day': TV Review

The Third Day
Ludovic Robert/HBO
Well-acted and structurally interesting, but excessively familiar.
9/14/2020

Jude Law and Naomie Harris star in an HBO limited series about family trauma, an island with weird religious practices and the evocative beauty of a causeway.

In 1903, Frederick Nicholas Charrington, who forsook a lucrative fortune to dedicate his life to helping London's less fortunate, purchased Osea, a small island off the River Blackwater in Essex. Charrington, a former brewer himself, turned Osea into a working camp for recovering alcoholics and malcontents. His evangelical zeal and hatred for vice has placed him on the long list of Jack the Ripper suspects — or, at the very least, made him partially responsible for the puritanical climate that closed brothels and forced prostitutes into the streets, where they were easy prey for whoever the actual Jack the Ripper happened to be.

It's a fascinating and true story — one you can Google for more details — that serves as the factual background for HBO's The Third Day.

A structurally intriguing limited series, The Third Day takes that context and uses it as a flimsy foundation for what is basically a more polished TV remake of The Wicker Man. Although it's made fairly watchable by several strong star turns and some lovely visuals, the fiction in The Third Day proves far less interesting than the verifiable history, layering on one unsurprising genre twist after another with almost no real visceral impact.

The structure of the series, a co-production with Sky Studios created by Felix Barrett and Dennis Kelly, goes like this: The first three episodes (which have individual titles but are collectively categorized as "Summer") are directed by Marc Munden and focus on Jude Law as an increasingly disoriented family man — he has two girls and a boy, he says over and over — from London who, after witnessing something terrible, finds himself on Osea. There, he discovers that the islanders are preparing for some sort of pseudo-Christian, pseudo-Celtic music festival inspired by a series of religious rituals that, as you might imagine, are vaguely disturbing. Briefly marooned on Osea because the causeway connecting the island to the mainland is only at low tide, Law's Sam begins to experience increased paranoia, which isn't helped by ultra-friendly innkeepers Mr. Martin (Paddy Considine) and Mrs. Martin (Emily Watson), as well as historian Jess (Katherine Waterston), repository of island lore and exposition.

The next three episodes, "Winter," are set several months later and focus on another newcomer to the island. Helen (Naomie Harris) arrives accompanied by daughters Ellie (Nico Parker, an uncanny doppelgänger of real-life mum Thandie Newton) and Tallulah (Charlotte Gairdner-Mihell) as part of a very strange and poorly planned birthday celebration. They also discover that Osea is full of natives behaving bizarrely and, once again, paranoia builds.

In-between the two "seasons," viewers will be able to watch "Fall" on October 3. It's being filmed live and is described as a "theatrical event broadcast" further immersing viewers into the world.

Critics have not been sent "Fall" obviously, what with it not having been shot yet, but it isn't a required narrative bridge. We've seen the entirety of "Summer" and two of three episodes of "Winter" and it all fits together fine. But given that Barrett is the co-founder of the British immersive theater (or "theatre") company PunchDrunk, which will be orchestrating "Fall," it's easy to be curious. And it's easy to feel like this is a fun experiment that HBO is doing and to accept that if you're tinkering with form and format, it often helps to use something conventional as your seed.

You know the drill, whether your frame of reference is The Wicker Man or Midsommar or any of several titles in which someone wanders into a seemingly normal town and quickly begins to realize that everything is just a wee bit catawampus. In the process of becoming entranced by the mystery of a place he darned well could have walked out of safely countless times, Sam becomes caught in a web that blends fundamentalism, an illusion of benign mundanity and his own repressed suffering. And if that sounds a bit like the first and second episodes of Lovecraft Country, this indeed isn't perfect timing for The Third Day, because HBO already has at least one better show upending this formula right now.

Because the genre has traditionally used a man — generally a white man — as its point of entry, the "Winter" section is the vastly more interesting of the show's two halves. Unfortunately, attempts to show how outsider interactions play differently when the protagonist is a Black woman are limited to Harris' character concluding that the locals who behave strangely toward her are racist, and then when they say they're not, there isn't really anywhere to go. Plus, Harris is an actress who conveys both intelligence and a take-no-shit attitude, so you know that her determination to stay in a place any reasonable person would flee immediately isn't merely incidental. In contrast, Law's natural aura of foppish self-absorption makes it easier to just accept a string of dumb choices.

It would help if any of the uniqueness of Osea's acknowledged history carried over to the show's depiction of the island. It requires a certain kind of obliviousness to hear the first rumblings about Celtic mythology and not say, "Yeah, I'm out of here before the bees come" — or to hear the oblique suggestions that Osea has elements of a New Age wellness cult and not say, "I have an HBO subscription and this is way too Scientology/NXIVM for me." History aside, everything that makes Osea distinctive or enticing is limited to Benjamin Kracun's astonishing cinematography — so many eerie shots of a submerged causeway — and Considine's obsequious smile, which Sam might not know to distrust, but viewers surely will. Considine anchors the earlier episodes and then Watson takes over as an increasingly foul-mouthed character who must have been a ball to play.

The things happening on Osea are unquestionably weird and a little unnerving, but Munden treats the obligatory nightmares and drug-fueled hallucinations with too many by-the-numbers details. Animal sacrifices! Dudes in masks! Warped tricks of perspective! Only because Law is so good and so comfortable inhabiting Sam's gradually revealed misery is there any impact at all. Munden's best trick is training the camera impossibly close on Law, letting the world around him become a befuddling blur and letting the Young Pope star sell the unease left vague in the script. Harris' character and performance are more purposeful, but the story in "Winter," directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, is too plagued by "Well, duh" moments that are treated here as shocking.

The ricketiness of the storytelling extends to the subtext. It's about the ways we cope with trauma and the psychological stumbling blocks of grief. Except for when it gets distracted by a disemboweled squirrel, though aren't we all disemboweled squirrels at our saddest? There's also an environmental message here, if you choose to see it, with Osea described as the soul of the Earth — a soul that has become out of balance with modernity, whether it's the destruction of the local oyster industry or a lack of useable cell phone reception.

Mostly, The Third Day is a structurally souped-up cautionary tale about contemporary people dabbling in pagan traditions and the unescapable islands where they do so. You, dear reader, know better than I do if that's a lesson you still require.

Stars: Jude Law, Naomie Harris, Katherine Waterston, Emily Watson, Paddy Considine, John Dagleish, Nico Parker, Charlotte Gairdner-Mihell, Paul Kaye

Creators: Felix Barrett and Dennis Kelly

Airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, starting September 14.