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At a time when so many crime thrillers tend toward the dark, gritty and prestige-minded, Peacock’s Leopard Skin stands out for being none of those things. While its setup sounds typical enough for the genre — a botched heist, terrified hostages, secrets and standoffs and betrayals — its execution proves to be anything but.
Created, written and directed by Sebastian Gutierrez (Jett), this series dances backward and forward in time, taking leisurely detours down semi-random rabbit holes and flights of fancy. It rarely misses an opportunity to admire the beauty of the (frequently unclothed) female form, or to plug into the crackling tension, amorous or otherwise, coursing between its characters. It’s ostensibly a drama, but one studded with oddball jokes.
Cast: Carla Gugino, Gaite Jansen, Amelia Eve, Ana de la Reguera, Gentry White, Margot Bingham, Nora Arnezeder, Philip Winchester, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Creator: Sebastian Gutierrez
All these excesses are held together not with airtight plotting, but through a hazy dream logic that at times feels downright opaque. As such, what any of it amounts to, in the end, is tough to say. As an immediate experience, though, its strangeness makes it intermittently, unexpectedly hypnotic — a string of mysterious but lurid pleasures, chopped up into manageable half-hour chunks.
Plot-wise, Leopard Skin hits the ground running so hard that initially, we don’t even know what we don’t know. The premiere quickly introduces Alba (a mesmerizing Carla Gugino) and Batty (Gaite Jansen), two beautiful women rattling around an airy mansion on a remote Mexican beach. But there’s barely time to wonder if they’re lovers, roommates, or something else before a trio of armed mercenaries (Gentry White’s Malone, Margot Bingham’s Clover and Nora Arnezeder’s Sierra) have forced their way in, looking for a place to hide out while they recover from a job turned sour.
The eight-episode season charts the situation as it spirals out of control from there. Clueless guests — including boorish documentarian Max (Philip Winchester), his bubbly younger girlfriend Maru (Amelia Eve) and the home’s former housekeeper Inocencia (Ana de la Reguera) — get caught up in the fray. Meanwhile, the thieves scramble to get the upper hand on their boss, corrupt Miami judge LaSalle (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Escapes are attempted, double crosses are considered and all come to realize that the best they can hope for from the situation might simply be to make it out alive.
But the real meat of Leopard Skin lies in the hopelessly tangled web of desires, jealousies and enmities knitting its characters together, some stretching back months or years. Gutierrez invites us into these people’s innermost psyches, from their darkest intrusive thoughts (like the visions of a bloodied bride that haunt Alba) to the stories they tell themselves about themselves (“My name is Max Hammond and I flirt with danger,” Max thinks to himself in a voiceover when he finds himself in a life-or-death pickle). Many of the details we’re given approach Wes Andersonian levels of quirkiness: Of course Batty’s failed careers include “underwater explorer” and “human mannequin,” because that’s the kind of story this is.
Which is to say that Leopard Skin has no interest in trying to capture the way real people behave, dress or talk. Gugino seems particularly well-suited for the fantasy that Gutierrez (her real-life partner and frequent professional collaborator) has constructed around her, with her smoky-honey voice and larger-than-life presence. These characters swan around their lavish homes in jewel-tone silks and skyscraper heels, and speak in the purple prose and stiff cadences of a stylized noir or a trashy soap. Sometimes, in dream sequences, they don’t speak at all, but communicate psychically. Left alone in a house at night, a woman tweaks her own nipples while splashing milk down her own throat, for the sheer lusty pleasure of it.
It’s silly, and weird, and weirdly sexy, which is Leopard Skin‘s home turf. This is not a series that pretends to avert its gaze, or tries to act like it’s not turned on by what it’s seeing. To the contrary, it’s cheerful and extravagant in its smuttiness, relishing shots of elaborately choreographed love scenes and unclothed bodies lounging by pools or writhing in beds. If Gutierrez’s halfhearted attempts to cast a feminist sheen on all this (primarily female) naked business are rarely convincing, he has a far stronger grasp of the psychological and emotional depths pulsing underneath its steamiest (spoiler-y) relationship. He knows how to shoot a sex scene, but he also recognizes when the sexiest thing in a sex scene is the steady eye contact between characters whose kinky dynamic has been teased and fleshed out over several episodes.
Where Leopard Skin loses me again is in trying to puzzle out what I’m meant to take away from any of this. The series’ heightened style, fractured structure and taste for unexpected details makes watching it feel akin to dreaming. As with the stories that visit us in our sleep, it’s fueled by visceral emotions better felt than understood, and loaded with curious symbols that might mean everything or nothing. But as with all but the most intense of dreams, its delights are ultimately fleeting — rich enough to savor in the moment, but quick to evaporate in the colder, brighter light of morning.
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