The Essex Serpent is a slow, methodical crawl into mediocrity. Despite starting out brightly, with a lot of promise and a clear identity, this Gothic horror/mystery series slumps into period drama and pointless subplots that go absolutely nowhere.
Even with the brilliance of Tom Hiddleston’s acting, this one’s unfortunately another mediocre misfire from AppleTV.
Adapted from the novel of the same name, The Essex Serpent is set in Victorian England, split in setting between Essex and London. With gorgeous cinematography, the series does a decent job depicting the juxtaposition between city and rural life, and it’s the latter where most of the intriguing drama takes place.
Fresh from the death of her husband, widowed Cora Seaborne moves to Essex to investigate reports of a strange serpent that seems to be causing havoc in the nearby river. While there, she ends up forming a close bond with the pastor, Will Ransome, and the duo become entangled in a will they/won’t they affair.
When one of the local children goes missing, Cora is accused of being a witch and blamed for attracting the creature to the community.
All of this is compellingly written, but it’s thwarted by a tone and feel that completely abandons the show during the final 3 episodes. Honestly, it feels like watching a completely different series. The sinister and eerie undertones are gone, and instead replaced with a formulaic and simple period drama. Some of this is perpetuated by Cora’s London-bound “friend” Dr Luke Garrett. A promising surgeon, he has the hots for Cora, while she clearly fancies Will, setting up a lukewarm love triangle of sorts.
If that wasn’t enough, we also get an utterly pointless subplot involving Martha, Cora’s maid, who remains determined to set up a social housing bill. This is easily the weakest part of the whole show and it goes absolutely nowhere. In fact, a good 15 minutes is dedicated to this in the final chapter and the resolution is so unsatisfying that it makes you wonder why it was even included.
To be fair though, the series does have a really nice way of weaving its themes of desire, seduction and the age-old religion VS science debate into the narrative.
Again, this is something that tapers off during the final few episodes, devolving instead into a simple paint-by-numbers love story. And a love story, one may add, that includes two characters rolling around on the floor during episode 4, kissing and making love in full view of the village that are on high alert and blood lusting a witch hunt.
I mentioned earlier about Tom Hiddleston and he is by far the best part of this series. His acting is sublime and subtle enough that you can feel the full range of emotion in every scene; from a simple glance out to the swampy river to a rage-fuelled duel with a bench, Will Ransome is a very compelling character to watch.
Claire Danes on the other hand is a bit hit or miss in her role as Cora, with some obvious overacting at times, and other moments showing off some excellent characterization.
In the end, The Essex Serpent is another series that start off brightly and loses its appeal before the final credits roll. It’s another example of wasted potential for something that could have been so much better than it is. This is one Gothic period drama that’s unlikely to slither its way into your top TV list any time soon.
Verdict - 6/10