First episode impressions: ‘The Third Day’ (TV review)

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f “The Third Day” (Mondays, HBO) was an open-ended series, I’d bow out after this first episode, cuz ain’t nobody got time fo’ a “Lost”-ian wait for answers. But since it’s a six-hour miniseries (rather than six seasons) there’s enough here to keep me coming back. The decidedly weird first hour is more good-weird than bad-weird. It’s not as creepy as I’d prefer, but it is mysterious, and an appealingly weathered, receding-hairlined Jude Law makes a fine lead as Sam.

Shot somewhere in England, I assume, “The Third Day” looks great under the direction of Marc Munden, working from the teleplay by Dennis Kelly, who is enjoying a robust Fall TV season. (His series “Utopia” is being remade even as he oversees this miniseries.) Calling to mind “The Woman in Black,” “The Third Day” features an island off the British coast accessible only by a causeway when it’s clear of water at low tide. Gorgeous overhead shots illustrate this odd roadway.

Kelly writes weird scenes and Munden enhances them. Two kids seems to be playing in the woods, from what our (and Sam’s) ear can discern. Is she going to swing on a rope across a chasm? Nope, she’s hanging herself! Scenes like this keep us off-balance, which is a good thing, but if enough moments go by where things aren’t quite they seem, the whole thing can dissolve.

Law keeps us engaged by doing a lot of facial-expression acting; plus we know Sam is a good guy because he drives suicidal teen Epona (Jessie Ross) out to her home on the island after finding her in the woods.

What makes “The Third Day” a little different from those movies about isolated cults with secret plans for unwary visitors is that Sam is not exactly an Everyman protagonist. He has his own secrets.

We feel Sam’s frustration as he’s stuck on the island because some idiot parks his truck behind his car, blocking him in a driveway. He can’t get to the causeway before the water rises so he has to stay overnight. Further idiocies pile up, such as Mr. Martin (Paddy Consadine) giving Sam a room that’s already booked to Jess (Katherine Waterston), who is on the island for an upcoming music festival. Everything that can go wrong does for Sam, to the point of absurdity.

Every actor except Law does that type of acting that requires careful direction. Mr. Martin is nice, but maybe a little too quick with the friendly grin, and maybe a little too dismissive of Sam’s frustration at being stranded overnight. Jess is irked with Sam for coming into her room, but then she drinks and parties with him all night. Having seen “The Wicker Man” and “Midsommar,” I know to be distrustful of everyone. I want to like them, because it’s less scary to think they are decent people. But there’s too much weirdness going on to relax.

What makes “The Third Day” a little different from those movies about isolated cults with secret plans for unwary visitors is that Sam is not exactly an Everyman protagonist. He has his own secrets. He’s preoccupied with 40K pounds of cash having been stolen from his gardening store – as he learns in a text from his wife – but he struggles to get cell reception to learn more about it. Then an hour-ending twist reveals that there’s another layer to the supposed theft. Plus, he sees a boy at the scene of Epona’s attempted self-hanging. She says “What boy?” A lot of what Sam sees is shot with a dreamlike cast, but that’s hardly a clue on a show where even the real happenings are surreal.

Another of the top-billed actors, Naomie Harris (Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig “Bonds”), is nowhere to be found in the first episode. If “The Third Day” remains compelling up to the point when Harris comes aboard, this six-episode run likely won’t feel like homework.

I usually take the view that if a story has an enjoyable journey, it’s not essential that it sticks the landing – it’s a cherry on top if it does. “The Third Day” feels like an exception to that rule. The journey is weirdly compelling so far, but if it leads to nothing, or to a repeat of another story, I’ll feel robbed. But the one thing I do trust about these islanders (and therefore Kelly’s narrative) is that they have tricks up their sleeves.

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