Netflix’s latest international small-town mystery series is a dour affair, as expected, but it can’t quite rise above its cliched underpinnings.
This review of Signs (Netflix) is spoiler-free.
You can check out our in-depth recaps of every episode by clicking these words.
Another day, another crime — or series of crimes — sending shockwaves through a small, dour European town. Yes, we’re very much in the realm of midweek international streaming with Signs, Netflix’s latest eight-part limited series about the murder of a young woman showing disturbing similarities to a decade-old cold case.
All the right elements are there. The rural mountain town looks just the right place for a murder, or several, boasting lavish landscapes, eerie woodland, and the odd splash of color, though the urban center is grey, feeling like a time-locked, analog place, where long-held beliefs and traditions hold sway over all. The protagonist, new police Chief Michal Trela (Andrzej Konopka), is a chain-smoking transplant from Kraków who might have been blown out of the big city because of alcoholism. He and his daughter, Nina (Magdalena Zak), make frequent reference to how little there is to do in this no-account little town in the middle of nowhere. But Nina is very much taken by Agata (Helena Englert), the rebellious daughter of the town’s all-powerful mayor, and Trela has his hands full with everyone else.
The gruff big-city policeman stirring up trouble is really nothing new, and Signs makes little effort to distinguish itself from all the cliches and archetypes you expect in this kind of story. There are some tweaks to the formula here and there, and the odd bit of cultural specificity that helps things along, but genre is king in Signs, and the audience being targeted is the same one courted by something like Deadwind, though that Nordic noir is superior and more ambitious.
The tone is the same, mind, spruced up here with a strong focus on religious iconography and beliefs, which isn’t much of a surprise given the title. In the very first episode, Trela unravels the scheme of a self-styled healer, Jonasz (Andrzej Mastalerz), to spike his so-called “holy water” with ecstasy and sell it for a profit to an eager consumer base. This miraculous restorative comes up again and again, as does Jonasz, and everything from him to a grieving conspiracy theorist mother, Zofia (Malgorzata Hajewska), and the disappearance of Patrycja Piotrowska (Alicja Pietruszka) after an argument with her hard-drinking husband Pawel (Robert Gulaczyk) is in some way connected.
These connections, some expected, some less so, should be enough to keep an audience engaged throughout the eight fifty-ish-minute episodes, though one can’t help but suspect that Signs would have been better served by six. This kind of downbeat small-town crime story is ten-a-penny on Netflix, and this effort does little to stand out, but it has enough affection for its underlying formula to be a satisfying-enough binge for genre fans. That’ll have to do.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.