The Serpent: Review

Oh boy, the story of a notorious serial killer with a 1970s Bangkok backdrop. I would have expected this show to make a bigger splash. The crime drama subgenre has thrived alongside the advent of streamed television. With big producers like Netflix and the BBC releasing quality such as Mindhunter, Criminal UK, Bodyguard, Happy Valley and much more. Written by Richard Warlow, Toby Finlay, and directed by Tom Shankland, this new addition from the BBC takes its spot comfortably, filling the niche of being set in the exotic Southern Asia of the ‘70s. But unfortunately, it doesn’t quite pack the punch of some of its counterparts.

It follows the exploits of the infamous serial killer and fraudster, Charles Sobhraj, who preyed on travellers undertaking the Hippy Trail in 1975 and ’76. One of the show’s strengths is in its production and atmosphere. There is no shortage in flares, yellow-tinted sunglasses and other ‘70s cliches. The show does an excellent job in creating the world in which it is set, especially considering the challenges the team faced due to the COVID pandemic. Most of the filming did take place in Thailand, which has changed a lot since the ’70s (I didn’t spot a single Mcdonalds in the background), but towards the end of their filming, “Tring [in Hertfordshire] had to double for Bangkok, Karachi, Delhi and Mumbai” said series co-producer, Paul Testar. Considering this, the series does an excellent job in taking the viewer to the bygone setting.

Alas, for reasons that are still unclear to me, the scenes jump back and forth between characters and over periods of months and years. There are insistent ‘3 Months Later’ or ‘6 Years Earlier’ sub-headings, sometimes happening as many as 10 times per episode. I didn’t really know what this served to achieve, and in fact, it  was jarring and greatly hurt the pacing (it simply happens too frequently). Whenever tension was effectively built, it was instantly dissolved; often the scenes would switch from Sobhraj and his victims nearing a climatic turn, to the non-offensive, Knippenberg talking to someone or on the phone. As well as this- and perhaps as a by-product of it- the show never firmly establishes a tone, with the viewer wondering if we are supposed to be repulsed, or secretly revel in Sobhraj and Marie-Andrée Leclerc’s (his sidekick lover) exploits. This is epitomized by an incredibly off-pace and uncomfortably light-hearted montage of the pair preying on travellers whilst Harry Nilsson plays in the background. This comes directly after Leclerc is shown to actually have a moral compass and starts having doubts about what they’re doing.  

Whilst Tahar Rahim does a fine job portraying the murderer, he adopts the relatively cliché serial-killer persona of a robotic sociopath and often Sobhraj’s notorious charm is absent. His motivations are hinted at, with him admiring the Vietcong and a few mentions of the discrimination he faced as a mixed race Vietnamese-Indian growing up in France, but are left underdeveloped.  As the show goes on, the character can become a bit one note and less riveting. Unfortunately, the same can be said about many of the show’s characters. This is due more to the writing than the performances. Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) is the typical woman in love with a psychopath, as she helps him in his deeds whilst emotionally detaching herself. A blank stare and pang of guilt now and then doesn’t constitute character or depth though, and she essentially amounts to a serial killer’s assistant. Herman Knippenberg is a redeeming factor, often serving to effectively dilute the thick serial-killer and ’70s clichés, albeit kill the tension in the process. He is the Dutch junior diplomat who takes it upon himself to track down Sobhraj. Refreshingly tenacious yet humble, I found myself rooting for him. Again, though, as the series drags out (as it does), he also becomes slightly one-note and boring. Billy Howle does an excellent job in his portrayal and I expect to see more from him in the future.

The story is a compelling one, but perhaps the writers tell it too truly, or go into too much depth, because as the series goes on it gets quite monotonous; the intriguing and nostalgic setting not being enough to carry it through its 8-hour duration. That being said, it does effectively tell the interesting story of Sobhraj, and it’s definitely worth a look for lovers of the genre.

Grade: B

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