TV review: HBO’s The Third Day is an experience, all right

The experimental dramatic series – premiering at TIFF in advance of its broadcast bow – is total bollocks, but compulsively watchable

THE THIRD DAY PRIME D: Marc Munden. U.K. 117 min. Sep 11, 11:59 pm, CityView drive-in; Sep 12, 6 pm, Bell Digital Cinema. Premieres on HBO and Crave Monday (Sep 14). Rating: NNN

When The Third Day premieres at TIFF in advance of its broadcast premiere September 14, it’s going to do something a little different.

Where most TV projects bring their first two or three episodes to the festival in order to draw people in, festivalgoers will see the first and fourth episodes of the HBO series, which are effectively the first chapters of two different narratives. It’s an odd way to discover this show, which will air Mondays (starting September 14) as two sets of three episodes apiece, with a live special to be aired between the arcs.

It’s an odd way to discover this series, which is told in two sections of three episodes apiece with a live special to be aired between the arcs. But as a midnight drive-in experience, this presentation could work very well: you get all the atmospheric weirdness, and even a semblance of an ending, without worrying about investing in the larger mythology of the show. And it does offer two master classes in acting from Jude Law in the first hour, and Naomie Harris in the second.

So what’s The Third Day about? It’s about the experience, man.

Set on the island of Osea, which is just off the English coast and accessible only by a causeway that’s only open when the tide is out, The Third Day is the first television project from British dramatist Felix Barrett, who created the theatrical experience Sleep No More, and director Dennis Kelly (Utopia, Black Sea). It’s an exploration of grief and pain, with focal characters who’ve lost someone precious to them. And it is as affected as hell, an expensive and very busy attempt to translate the state of wandering through a chaotic-but-controlled environment like Sleep No More onto the screen.

In the first story, “Summer,” Law plays Sam, who – carrying the weight of a profound personal tragedy and newly reeling from a massive setback to his business – arrives on Osea with a teenage girl he’s saved after a shocking accident. But despite Sam’s urgent need to get back to London, the locals set him up with a room and politely refuse to let him leave: the causeway’s closed, the phones don’t work, and here, have a nice cup of tea, don’t mind the fella with the shotgun outside, he’s a good lad. And the more Sam observes of life on Osea, the more unsettled he becomes.

In the second narrative, “Winter,” a mother (Harris) and her two daughters (Charlotte Gairdner-Mihell, Nico Parker) arrive on Osea for a birthday surprise, and have rather a different experience from Sam’s: everyone is actively hostile to the family, demanding they turn around and leave, and everywhere they go they find unsettling, empty tableaux: a deserted hotel, an abandoned construction project, an empty house filled with strange medical equipment. Something bad has happened here. Maybe it’s still happening.

Anyone who’s seen The Wicker Man – or even last year’s Midsommar – will have a sense of where this is all leading, but Barrett and Kelly refuse to acknowledge they’re working in a well-established genre … and that’s sort of the problem with The Third Day: it’s all about dropping the audience into a richly realized world, but it doesn’t have a plan for what to do if the audience recognizes said world and figures out the answers to its not terribly complex mysteries in advance of the protagonists.

The show just trudges alongside the leads as they flail his way through each new weird encounter; Law and Harris are audience surrogates, stumbling into this exchange or that confrontation, trying to understand what’s happening around them as things get darker and darker. This is not just literally but textually accurate: everyone keeps muttering about “the darkness” in low tones. (I’ve watched five episodes of The Third Day and still don’t know what that means.)

Even as Barrett and Kelly condescend to their material, using artful cinematography and an atonal score to indicate the ways in which they’re elevating the grindhouse narrative, the actors do their best: Law throws himself into the raw panic of a man whose world is spinning out of his grasp, while Paddy Considine and Emily Watson have a lot of fun as an enigmatic couple who run Osea’s pub and Katherine Waterston offers an interesting distraction as an American historian who turns up to interpret the island’s voluminous backstory.

A number of these people will reappear in Harris’s section, and the change in perspective – combined with things we’ve already seen – informs the cast’s performances in an intriguing way. (Even if, again, the whole thing is total bollocks.)

And yet I enjoyed watching The Third Day even as I grew less and less invested in what was happening in it; it’s a puzzle box where the box is so beautifully constructed that you just wind up marvelling at the work that went into it. And really, who cares what’s inside? It’s probably just a mint or something.

Anyway, it’ll be really fun to watch late at night.


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