A twisty psychological thriller with a great cast that unfortunately can’t obscure a mystery that isn’t particularly mysterious.
This review of The Stranger (Netflix) is entirely spoiler-free.
The last adaptation of a Harlan Coben novel on Netflix was, to the best of my knowledge, the bizarre and not particularly good Safe. Which makes sense, since The Stranger is from the same team, runs across eight episodes, and is about suburban families getting their lives turned upside-down by secrets, lies, and mysteries. I’d say this latest effort is the superior one, in part because it doesn’t have quite the same kind of exaggerated, almost farcical tone, but that doesn’t mean it’s all that good, either.
In The Stranger, Richard Armitage, who has done great TV drama work before, plays Adam Price, an everyman with two sons and a wife (Dervla Kirwan) whose seemingly perfect life is thrown into disarray when a stranger in a bar starts dispensing painful secrets. And the secrets just keep coming. That’s part of the problem with the show, which delights in red herrings, big, obvious signposts around important plot elements, and “unexpected” turns, none of which really obscure the fact that the mystery at the show’s core isn’t particularly mysterious.
There’s an awkward push and pull here between a comforting, familiar genre structure and the sudden swerves which are there to keep an audience engaged. The artifice is always clear; the twists are so telegraphed that they fail to take the plot in intriguing or exciting new directions. This kind of overwhelming obviousness saps the show of its mystery, and in large part makes it tedious to sit through.
The cast helps to prevent The Stranger from pushing away its audience too soon, even if they’re not tasked with anything that troubles them. Armitage makes a reliable lead, and there are pleasurable faces everywhere, including Jennifer Saunders in a rare dramatic turn, Paul Kaye, and Anthony Head. You can’t help but wish they had more to do here, in an adaptation that aims to complicate naturalistic family life and unfortunately ends up committing to bland suburbia a little too much.
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