By Chris Byrd | Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — “Based on the novel by Harlan Coben.” That’s a phrase with which Netflix subscribers should expect to become familiar.
In 2018, the prolific, award-winning American mystery writer inked a lucrative contract with the streaming service to executive produce 14 series adapted from his books.
The second English-language product of that deal — 2020’s “The Stranger” was the first — “Stay Close” is currently among the platform’s most popular shows. It’s difficult to understand why, however. Airing in eight one-hour episodes, the limited series turns out to be, at times, overwrought and absurd. It also tests the boundaries of good taste.
Daniel O’Hara and Lindy Heymann split the directorial work between them. Among the program’s writers are frequent Coben associate Daniel Brocklehurst as well as the novelist’s daughter, Charlotte.
The fictitious seaside village of Ridgewood, England, serves as a stand-in for the book’s setting, Atlantic City, New Jersey. Ridgewood’s Vipers nightclub — with its gaudy lights, blaring music and exotic dancers — recalls the latter locale. So, too, does its boardwalk and amusement park.
Following the disappearance of 20-year-old Carlton Flynn (Connor Calland) from the woods behind Vipers, veteran Detective Sgt. Michael Broome (James Nesbitt) finds himself a link between two mysteries. Seventeen years earlier to the day, Stewart Green (Rod Hunt) had gone missing in the same area. Michael had headed the resulting investigation.
The drama’s other key character, former stripper Megan Pierce (Cush Jumbo), knows firsthand just what a violently erratic character Stewart was. Having become the unwilling object of the obsessive — and married — man’s attentions, she had been forced to struggle desperately to escape him the night he vanished.
Megan has since overcome her past and established a happy life with her common-law husband, Dave Shaw (Daniel Francis), with whom she has three teenage children. In fact, the two have decided, however belatedly, to make things official by tying the knot.
So when Megan returns home from her bachelorette party to find a note from Vipers owner Lorraine Griggs (Sarah Parish) in which Griggs claims to have seen Stewart alive, it makes for the most unwelcome of news. It also draws Megan even more deeply into the riddle she and Michael are both trying to solve.
Given its gritty milieu — and the fact that it’s obviously aimed at an adult audience — “Stay Close” is, in some respects at least, admirably restrained. Thus, sexual encounters are only implied after the fact. Similarly, striptease acts are depicted without graphic nudity. And coarse language is less frequently a feature of the dialogue than might have been expected.
No such reserve, however, is evident in the show’s approach to violence. Viewers are confronted by decayed skeletons, scenes of torture and bodies awash in blood. A narcotics theme and an incidental transvestite character also mark the program as mature fare.
On the artistic side, things go off the rails with the appearance of a duo nicknamed “Ken” (Hyoie O’Grady) and “Barbie” (Poppy Gilbert). Hired by Carlton’s father, Del (Ross Boatman), to exact revenge on anyone responsible for his son’s fate, the deceptively saccharine couple inexplicably break into song and dance amid the grim mayhem they perpetrate on Del’s behalf.
TV fans will likely be left bewildered by the uneven narrative tone that results from such excessively dark black comedy. The clever ending that awaits those who persevere through it only partially compensates for the creators’ willingness — perhaps eagerness — to go over the top.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.