No Man’s Land

2 out of 5

Created by: Ron Leshem, Eitan Mansuri, Maria Feldman

covers season 1

Most of the reviews I read for No Man’s Land were fairly negative, and generally for a couple of reasons I cannot really disagree with: that it’s a shallow, outsider’s depiction of war; and that it has a lot of chatter up front about a particular focus – the YPJ, an all-female military unit battling ISIS during the Syrian civil war – about which it essentially has zero dealings thereafter.

But I think both points have more to do with viewer expectations; the summary of the show (from IMDB) is much more generic: “A family grieves the death of their daughter in a suicide bombing. Meanwhile, her brother suspects she is still alive after glimpsing her in a news report and sets off to find her in the Middle East.” Now, those viewer expectations are, again, not without merit, as No Man’s Land is pretty poor in directing its focus, initially. But watched as more of an open-ended drama that uses conflict in the Middle East as a backdrop, it tends to work, at least episode by episode. It ultimately drops the ball when trying to bring things together, aiming for next season plotline bids that undermine any hopes that emotional threads that are woven through the first seasons’ eight episodes will actually matter, and sort of coming back to those initial stumbling blocks: by setting the series at a specific time and place (2015 Syria), it suggests it will be more historically bound than it is, and then by not actually delving in to much with that specific time and place, it becomes an unfortunate “things sure are fucked up over there, eh?” whitewash.

The individual plotlines are compelling, though – backed up by strong performances – at least until they start to fall in to TV subplot dawdling. Perhaps spending more time on any given one of those would’ve allowed for a stronger point of view, and dealing more directly with the realities of conflict and conflicting points of view the show plays with. We have:

The brother, Antoine (Félix Moati), in France, who’s haunted by his sister’s reported death, and chases a suspicion – based on a glimpse of something familiar in a news report – that she’s actually alive, and involved with the YPJ.

Flashbacks with Antoine’s sister, Anna (Mélanie Thierry), giving us her background prior to events we’re seeing, and suggesting how she might’ve become more involved with events in Syria.

Moments with members of the YPJ that Antoine ends up riding along with in search of his sister, including a leader of the group Antoine is with, Sarya (Souheila Yacoub), and others of mixed backgrounds from outside the region, who’ve joined the cause for their own (mostly vague) reasons.

Separately, we split time with three British friends who’ve joined ISIS – Nassir (James Krishna Floyd), Iyad (Jo Ben Ayed) and Paul (Dean Ridge) – lightly touching on their motivations, but moreso focusing on the divide in their mentalities as their involvement in atrocities deepens.

Each of these plotlines, as mentioned, can be very strong, and the show smartly sits with one focus at a time, instead of intercutting between them per episode, allowing us to get invested in whichever tale. Antoine’s blank-faced involvement in the war is an intriguing way to sidle the viewer in to things without a direct agenda, paralleled or juxtaposed by Anna’s and Sarya’s point of views. Then jumping over to the three friends, No Man’s Land certainly isn’t sympathetic towards ISIS, but it does show these characters as humans, and thus adds some dynamics in to that relationship.

Of course, many of these stories eventually intersect, but No Man’s Land takes a long time in getting there – until the end of the season, really – and that’s where things start to feel especially shallow, as the somewhat casual explorations of characters is forcefully ratcheted up with cliffhangers. But even prior to that, after each establishing episode for the plotlines, the cracks show: Sarya’s role gets somewhat subsumed by relationship nonsense; Antoine’s drive becomes more cardboard; Iyad and Paul start to fall in to cookie-cutter villain roles – again, all of this summarizing how the series is a poor marriage between its desire to be a more accessible wartime drama vs. an intelligent dive in to the web of personalities and decisions involved on both sides of a realworld event. And the overall ineptness of this telegraphed by that first episode’s setup, boldly and somberly describing things that are sort of tangential to its actual focus. Moving past that and viewing it as something more generic does offer viewerly value, but only up to a certain point.