The Replacement

3 out of 5

Directed by: Joe Ahearne

An incredibly tense Single White Female-esque thriller that unfortunately stumbles over itself when going for the throat in its final act.

Architect Ellen (Morven Christie) is rounding the final bend on a high profile project, which she spearheaded, when she gets some additional good news: She’s pregnant.  The maternity leave will cover the final stages of her project, but, beloved by her company (the owners of which she shares a friendship), she’s assured she’ll have oversight on the temporary fill-in in her stead.

Enter Paula (Vicky McClure).  Paula is fantastic at the job, to the point of nervousness for Ellen, who worries that she won’t be needed by when she’s ready to return; a concern that is, of course, shushed away.  But the fears of replacement grow stronger during Paula’s training period, when Ellen’s trainee “innocently” keeps setting her up to fail, or makes offhand judgments about parenthood.  The enmity builds – and meanwhile the rest of the office just seems to love Paula more and more…

And gently pull on that string for two and a half brilliantly paced episodes.  While the series daintily crosses the plausibility line at points, with people turning on Ellen a bit too easily (explained away as reasonable due to mental problems in her past), the core simmer-to-boiling rivalry is so securely rooted in a recognizable sense of fear that its immensely attention-grabbing; certainly enough so to overlook some of the more egregious knife twists.  The show also hiccups when trying to humanize Paula by showing us scenes of her without Ellen as a counterpoint.  In a longer series where the two sides are balanced, this would be effective, but it only serves as a puzzling tension deflator here, since we’re almost always functioning from Ellen’s point of view.  Again, though, Paula’s manipulations are so slickly handled that its easy to get re-wrapped back in things as soon as they get going.

But the show needs more room.  While the ending is mostly logical – conceptual spoilers follow – too much gets stuffed into that third episode, off-setting the careful balance displayed in the build-up.  Paula crosses the line into psycho, and then the quick escalation has a similar shortened amount of time to de-escalate, leading to an almost humorous “and then everyone suddenly believed her” happy ending.  That it had an ending is certainly a plus, but its unfortunate that there were several meaty concepts stacked up that could have supported some subsequent twists and turns but ended up just being detail dressing.  …To a mostly very effective thriller, though.  So I don’t consider my valuable TV time in any way wasted.