Available on Netflix
Of all the crime authors who seem to be doing very well out of the globalisation of TV, Harlan Coben has to be at the forefront. We’ve had The Five on Sky in the UK and Juste un regard (Just One Look) on TF1 in France; meanwhile, on Netflix we’ve had the UK-based Safe, with a Spanish version of The Innocent and a Polish version of The Woods on their way. And right now, we have another UK Coben production – The Stranger.
Which is odd, really, since most of his books are set in the US and no US network has so far chosen to adapt any of his books. I wonder why?
Safe, of course, despite being set in Manchester, starred a couple of global TV megastars – America’s Michael C Hall (Six Feet Under, Dexter) and France’s Audrey Fleurot (Engrenages, Les témoins). However, The Stranger is almost exclusive populated with home-grown talent, albeit UK and Irish actors who have also done very well out of TV and film globalisation themselves.
The star of The Stranger is none other than TMINE’s very own Dick Head (retired), Richard Armitage (Robin Hood, Strike Back, Berlin Station, Hannibal, Captain America: The First Avenger). Armitage is a regular lawyer and family man living in an unnamed town that looks suspiciously like various parts of Greater Manchester. He seems happy, despite the fact his mate/client Stephen Rea’s house is about to be knocked down by a firm owned by his very own father (Buffy‘s Anthony Head). He also seems to love his wife (Dervla Kirwan) very much.
Then a complete stranger confronts him one day: Hannah John-Kamen (Killjoys, The Tunnel, Ant-Man and the Wasp). She tells him a secret about Kirwan that turns Armitage’s world upside down. But Armitage isn’t the only one who has secrets, and soon everyone’s having to deal with their private lives being revealed.
And decapitated alpacas.
As with most UK Coben adaptations, this is as much a Danny Brocklehurst (Brassic, Safe, The Five, Come Home) piece as it is a Coben story. Brocklehurst seems a bit more confident to do his own thing this time round, as The Stranger is both stranger than you think it’s going to be, as well as funnier. And more Northern.
You can tell it’s going to be funnier – and odder – than expected by the fact Shaun Dooley, Paul Kaye and Jennifer Saunders are in it. And from that alpaca staring at you in the title sequence.
Before long, you’ve got naked kids in the woods off their heads on PCP and hallucinating like crazy.
However, this oddness and comedy doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with the otherwise straight Coben story, which as with Safe is an interconnected tangle of various characters all going around investigating one another and learning odd things in response.
Think Armitage’s issues are going to be the show’s focus? Not at all, as everyone – including the Stranger and even the police – have their own things going on.
To be honest, that doesn’t entirely work. It’s one thing to imagine that lawyer Armitage (with the assistance of ex-cop Rea) and the police may have the combined gumption to investigate what’s going on. It’s quite another to imagine Armitage’s son (and comedy pals), Armitage’s mate Dooley and others wading in, too.
Or that quite as many people in such a small town have such an accumulation of deep dark secrets that they’d want to go around murdering and blackmailing people. Indeed, there are so many morality swaps going on that it’s almost unsurprising when dead bodies and rat poison start getting discovered en masse in numerous houses.
Seemingly, it’s also a town no one leaves, since this is very much outdoors Agatha Christie, with no one scarpering for London at the first opportunity, just hanging around waiting to be found guilty of something.
Meanwhile, the Stranger turns out to have near magical powers not only of investigation, learning secrets it’s not even slightly possible to learn from someone’s IP address, but of disappearance, with John-Kamen just short of revealing her League of Shadows’ membership, judging by her ability to silently disappear in the middle of a well-lit gravel-lined railway yard.
So as you can tell, a healthy amount of suspension of disbelief is required to deal with The Stranger. And that’s before you even start wondering why so few people from Mancs actually sound Mancs, even the kids. Or why anyone has access to a handgun or even if the ending really would have happened that way, other than this is an adaptation of a US book. Indeed, there are often times when the show veers into Sex Education-levels of bizarre transatlantic culture blurring.
But once you have suspended your disbelief, The Stranger ain’t half bad. It does have a few things to say of note about privacy in the Internet age, as well as whether secrets are best left kept or not. There is a certain pleasing intricacy to the plotting, as well as some novelty in the secrets. And while some things often appear to come out of the blue, the show is often good at foreshadowing – you just have to work out what it’s foreshadowing.
Armitage makes for a good hero, gets to use some of his stunt training, and thankfully, doesn’t have to sport a novel accent for a change. Most of the big names in the show only show up for a bit, with Head only turning up after a couple of episodes and John-Kamen largely turning up once an episode to be charmingly threatening. But when they’re in it, they’re good and Kaye’s turn is a proper piece of acting, not a Dennis Pennis revival.
And ultimately, as well as the surprisingly downbeat ending, there is a certain creepiness lurking in the background, with the idea of someone who knows everything about you but about whom you know nothing inserting themselves into your life and exerting power over it.
The Stranger isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Crime fans might find it a little too unseriousness, non-crime fans might not give a monkey’s about the usual whodunnit formula, even in a novel setting.
But while it’s not a classic and it probably won’t please everybody all of the time, it’s different enough and engrossing enough that you may be pleasantly surprised if you watch it.