1 out of 5
Directed by: Daniel O’Hara
covers season 1
Many moons ago, I saw the first Harlen Coben movie adaptation in theaters: Tell No One. I enjoyed it, as far as I remember. I had no idea who Coben was, but I was on a crime book / movie kick then (as I still am now, many years hence…), and the flick had gotten a good review, but there were likely other factors that I think made it appealing: probably that it wasn’t in English, because I was at the age where going to a foreign movie in an American theater felt high brow; and the person I was with did know Coben, and that seemed to give them a kick into enjoying the movie. I’d stress the latter one, because, as maybe the former one could suggest, I was the type to drag people to outlier flicks, combing reviews for interesting sounding stuff playing at indie theaters, and would often walk away feeling horrible that I’d taken someone to movie they probably didn’t enjoy. So getting a thumbs up from my fellow movie-goer secured a good memory.
I would pick up a Coben book soon after that, following that feel-good vibe, and I can’t remember which one it was, but I know I didn’t finish it. That’s not to be taken as a rating of the writer’s stuff, but it was definitely more of an airport book than I wanted; not the hardboiled pulp stuff I tended to lean toward.
Ever since then, anything I’ve watched associated with the author’s name has been, er, pretty trashy. But because of the mixed reception outlined above, I seem to be drawn toward checking out whatever it is. Which thus included new Netflix offering Stay Close. And with the show’s cast – Cush Jumbo, Eddie Izzard, Richard Armitage, and James Nesbitt – and some writing / production from generally reliable UK TVer Danny Brocklehurst, I figured I’d at least have some quality drapery lain over said trashiness.
To the show’s credit for not wasting our time, you can tell this is going to be some resolute clunk by the first episode’s cold open: yes, the character we see carousing, likely getting drugged, and then running through the woods is disappeared, which is the case that kicks off events of uncovered past secrets and convenient amnesia plot forgettings and recall and OMG-we-all-know-each-other character spiderwebs; however, unlike most detective-y series that take this approach of starting off with the murder (or whatever) victim, Stay Close just… shows us the character. Not his fate. There’s also no snap context provided to key us into whether or not we should really care about him, beyond the fact that he’s in focus. In fact, he comes across as something of a prick, just by being a slummy club dude, so the quick-cut edit to him running through the woods – not being chased, even, just a’runnin’ – I mean, okay?
And then a sloppy cut to opening credits, with a synthed up remake of a popular song and pretty baseline CG effects showing various household items going through first-pass particle physics explosion sims.
Nothing about this speaks to much patience or care for structure, it’s almost like the producers were expecting viewers exactly like me: oh, a Harlen Coben series; I guess I’m going to watch this.
Cush Jumbo is a happily to-be-married mum; Armitage is a perpetually down-on-his-luck photographer, who’s recovering from a drunken night and trying to piece together memories which may explain why his friend his missing… Oh, not the friend from the cold open, a different dude. But when he develops pictures that he apparently took during that drunken night, cold open dude (now being reported on the TV as missing) shows up in the background. Harry Nesbitt is, of course, the cop assigned to the missing dude case.
I don’t know when, exactly, Stay Close was produced, but perhaps COVID restrictions or simply a part-of-the-Netflix-deal minimal budget prevented the show from applying itself, but laziness abounds in all forms, from production to storytelling to research: we’re very limited on sets, so when Cush Jumbo’s and Armitage’s characters have flashbacks to important relationships from their pasts, it’s always of the same scene, suggesting these hugely impactful bonds – both sources of secrets they’ve kept from friends and family – are based around a single 15-minute interaction. That same limitation means that when Cush’s character travels out of her way to revisit some key locations from her past, it seems all of a 30-second drive from her house, meaning whatever crazy thing she’s secreting involves people she’d likely see at the grocery store. But mum’s the word!
Storytelling shorthand pervades obnoxiously: a couple of quirky killers show up who are just weird for weird’s sake, but also can’t really pursue their weirdness thanks to a PG-rated coating on this whole thing. They have approximately 0% place in the context of the way the story is told, and, similar to the lack of thought put into the police procedural part, do exactly the opposite of whatever “professional” killers (because, y’know, they’re like the best or something) would do, with lots of very public threatenings and whatnot. Regarding the police, I accept that Nesbitt’s severe delivery is the right choice for any copper who just busts his way through interrogations and investigations, but that shouldn’t give writers liberty to just set aside any actual process… And it’s not, like, a purposeful obstinateness that ends up giving Harry the right answers in his quest, it’s more just that he puts on a tough demeanor, asks irrelevant questions, and then the writers give him a clue cookie anyway, just to move things along.
There are other inconsistencies chalked up, which, to an extent, are expected in low-rent thrillers, but Stay Close has an absurd amount of them, and rolls them out as fast as it can.
The final episode or so finally rolls out some actual storytelling that suggests there might’ve been a more acceptable movie version of this, but at the same time, Stay Close also feels incredibly rushed, throwing forced (and faux) twists at us, and never settling to establish its characters, or setting. It’s never misleadingly good, at least, so if the first 20 minutes or so leave you wondering why you should care about this amateurish muddle, you can skip to the last episode, assured that that wonder isn’t successfully resolved anywhere prior to that.