Trouble is clearly brewing in the opening episode of Little Birds, but the show seems more concerned with style over substance.
This recap of Little Birds season 1, episode 1 contains spoilers.
Style over substance is a played-out term, but it’s a fitting one for Sky Atlantic’s Little Birds, which opens with an episode that’s boastful of its lush aesthetic, scene compositions and pastel color palette, but sets the foundations of a drama that is easy to view with the same kind of glassy-eyed passivity as the American Lucy, whom we meet here being prescribed pills by a doctor, given a gun by her father, Grant, and wished well on her trip to marry Hugo, an English aristocrat in the international zone of Tangier, Morocco.
On the boat over, Lucy meets and is fascinated by the American celebrity Lili Von X, who’s too sexually risqué for her native land and has some lovely stories about achieving the ultimate climax – and by “lovely” I mean deeply weird, which will become a recurring theme of the picturesque and vaguely surreal Tangier, where we meet Hugo having one last tangle with his lover, Egyptian royalty Adham Abaza, who happens to be a man. He says everything has changed when he finds out that Hugo is engaged. He’s not wrong.
Tangier is a hotbed of political hostility, social unrest, and mounting pressure on the French administration. The Moroccan King looms over proceedings like a ticking clock, and we see the issues manifest on street-level from the perspective of local courtesan Cherifa. This is the environment that Lucy is arriving in – greeted by a well-dressed Hugo – believing it to be a promised land of sexual freedoms. As she quickly discovers, simply having sex with her own husband is more trouble than it’s worth.
Hugo trying to avoid having sex with Lucy, both before and after they’re wed, takes up a good chunk of Little Birds episode 1. It’s mildly amusing. But it’s really the beginnings of a wider plot involving the sale of arms, Hugo’s efforts to schmooze the French Secretary, Pierre Vaney, the truer love story between Hugo and Abaza – Lucy is introduced to him at a lively French bar full of everyone who’s anyone in Tangier – and more besides, some of it involving Cherifa. The threat of French imperialism looms large in this tepid introduction more concerned with setup and style than anything else.