The Tourist riffs on a familiar premise: the amnesiac desperate to regain his memory. But that’s about the only thing that seems familiar. The characters feel fresh; the laughs that emerge from this self-described “dark thriller” surprise you. The setting — wide stretches of the Australian Outback — is awesome. And Jamie Dornan works a powerful magic. Dornan is one of a handful of actors right now – David Tennant is another — who has an ability to make an instantaneous connection with his audience. He doesn’t work the viewer over; his tricks aren’t eager and obvious, the way Tennant’s are. (That’s no slight against Tennant — it’s part of what makes him so appealing.) They’re more oblique. He’s a natural charmer on the screen, even when he’s playing the most despicable of roles. (Part of what gave The Fall its complexity is that the actor who played the serial killer, Dornan, had an easy warmth, while the actor who played his pursuer, Gillian Anderson, was a study in detachment.)
Dornan avoids all the pitfalls of playing an amnesiac. He never becomes a cipher; on the contrary, he so reels you in from the start that you’re attuned to every emotion flickering across his face. The actor is so naturally forthcoming with his feelings, he gets you on his side. You sense instantly when his bewilderment gives way to impatience, then to resolve; as he hunts for answers, you’re impressed by his tight focus and his cool head. He doesn’t emerge from his coma without a personality, merely without a memory. He has clear character traits; what you don’t know is if those traits are ones he’s been honing since birth, or ones he’s discovered since awakening. Are we seeing the man he was, or the man he’s becoming?
On the surface, The Tourist is about the efforts of Dornan’s character to outrun an enemy he can’t remember. (A Northern Irishman, he was driving through the Outback when a monster truck came barreling towards him and smashed into him. He awoke in the hospital with no idea who he was, who’d want him dead, or even what he was doing in Australia.) But more than that, it’s a series about the presumptions that we as viewers make, about the stories we enjoy and the stars we prize. One wouldn’t say of The Tourist that it always plays fair — on the contrary, a whole lot of tricks are manufactured solely to confound and delight the viewer — but one way it plays scrupulously fair is in letting us make key presumptions because we’re inclined to, or because we want to. It knows exactly how we’re going to respond to the mechanics of the plot — and to Dornan himself — and it lets us run with that. The plot doesn’t trip us up; it lets us trip ourselves up.
Writer-creators Harry Williams and Jack Williams scatter rabbit holes throughout the Outback, knowing we’ll jump down every one of them. I’ve rarely seen a series throw so many curves at the viewer without any sense of manipulation. You never feel conned when the writers flip the script; you’re impressed by their boldness, and you convince yourself that they’ve been playing fair with you, even when they haven’t. You reserve the same goodwill for them that you do for the man at the heart of the story. The Tourist is a show about survival: a new twist on the old adage “you can run, but you can’t hide.” It’s about our compulsive need to forgive, and our limited capacity to forget. But most of all, it’s a show about the lies we tell ourselves to get through the day, so we can move past yet another trauma or heartbreak, or live with the terrible decisions we’ve made. And it’s about the lies we tell ourselves as viewers. That duality is what gives the series its kick — and its complexity — and its audacity. It’s what makes the gut punch at the end so painful.
Crucially, The Tourist fortifies our expectations in its crafting of the second lead: Probationary Constable Helen Chambers (Danielle Macdonald), who puts her life on hold to come to Dornan’s aid. The character feels fully formed, but she doesn’t feel formed from TV stereotypes. She’s an innocent, just not the kind we’re used to: she’s not overly trusting, and she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. She merely has a simple, appealing moral compass, and she follows it. If she were a waif, she would disappear into the screen, but Macdonald has a robustness that makes her hard to overlook — and harder to resist. She’s kind but sensible; her desire to help this man, in whom she sees so much good (or at least potential for good) doesn’t cloud her judgment or diminish her capacity for self-preservation. But the man with no memory — who, without meaning to, keeps leaving behind him a trail of dead bodies — is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to her. Rescuing him becomes her mission. It focuses her, and frees her from facing up to a dreadful homelife.
And her practicality proves just what he needs. In the series' most enchanting scene, the two of them hole up in a Mexican cantina; he’s holding her hostage, but that’s beside the point. For the moment, they’re just hungry. “I don’t really drink,” she admits, after ordering a dirty martini, “but being held hostage, it didn’t really feel like a water situation.” He stares bewildered at the menu, admitting, “I don’t know what I like.” And she has a readymade reply: “So order everything. Figure it out.” And when he gives her a look of bemusement, she insists, “You’re so obsessed with finding out who you were, why don’t you start trying to find out who you are?” “By trying to find out which kind of Mexican food I prefer?” he replies, to which she counters, “It’s a start.” In the grand scheme of things, her suggestion makes no sense — they have far more important things to deduce than what he likes to eat, like figuring out who’s out to kill them. But at that particular moment, her cockeyed pragmatism seems perfectly sound. They’re kindred spirits: both able to detach themselves from the sense of danger long enough to enjoy the simple pleasures of a burrito. The Tourist bills itself as a dark thriller, but you could also see it as a blood-soaked, corpse-laden romcom about an amnesiac and a former traffic cop. It might be the brightest, cheekiest “dark thriller” I’ve ever seen.
Adam Kay had a point to make in 2017 when he published This Is Going to Hurt, charting his years as an obstetrics and gynecology trainee: to stand up for the maligned NHS — to pull back the curtain on the long hours, the neglect, the underfunding and the overcrowding. He still makes that point, cogently, in his BBC adaptation, but the story on the screen never descends into polemics. This is very much a character study, not a piece of political prose. The Adam Kay of the TV adaptation is a monumental creation: too smart for his own good, yet so earnest in his assumption of his duties that he’s easily the most admirable person on the screen. He’s a smart-aleck surgeon, always ready with a wry remark or a disbelieving smirk. He’s also withering away, day by day.
Ben Whishaw always seems to be thinking too fast for the camera, which makes him perfectly cast as Kay’s eponymous hero, because the fictional Adam is always thinking too fast too. And thinking too much. He can’t seem to set his mind in neutral: he’s stuck in a perpetual state of overdrive. So it feels altogether right that while you’re watching Adam’s mind racing, you’re also watching Whishaw challenging the camera crew to keep up. In Whishaw‘s career-best performance, you can see all the ways that Adam has been beaten down by his job, but you can also see how he thrives on that element of risk. It energizes him. The challenges of working in maternity healthcare aren’t even enough for him; he has to make things harder for himself. He refuses to call in a consultant, even when he’s in over his head. He takes cell phone calls in the delivery room. No multitask is too great for Adam Kay. Living life on the edge is killing him; it’s also what’s fueling him. (Given the chance, late in the series, to do a graveyard shift at a private hospital, he luxuriates in the catered food and the comfortable accommodations and the civilized doctor-to-patient ratio, but at the end of the night, what he can’t do there is save an expectant mother during a problematic birth. And as much as he moans about the soul-crushing nature of the NHS, it’s the birth and death part — the split-second decision making, the risky deliveries in the waiting area or the parking lot outside — that gets him off.) In Whishaw‘s performance, you can see how an untenable situation has become like a drug to Adam. It’s a game to the death that he’s desperate to play.
No one knows quite what to make of Adam. No one else on the screen — however well drawn — is as fascinating as he is. They can’t seem to get a handle on him. A nurse who has lodged a complaint against him with the General Medical Council goes on the attack late in the series: “You think that you’re the cleverest person in the room, and that makes you dangerous.” But Adam doesn’t just think he’s the cleverest person in the room; he is the cleverest person in the room. She tries to reduce his behavior to a few well-chosen words: “It’s pride, and it’s dishonesty. It’s arrogance, and it’s entitlement.” But we’ve been privy to Adam’s thoughts; at times, he’s even spoken directly to us. We know that every charge she lobs at him is only partially true, and even then, there’s an excuse. “You don’t give anything back,” his fiancé Harry complains after an engagement party that goes very, very wrong — but that’s not entirely accurate either. Adam gives back everything he’s got. But after a 97-hour work week, there’s not much left to give.
The onscreen Adam Kay isn’t one of those characters who “never allows himself to relax.“ On the contrary, he seems totally at ease in his scenes with Harry (Rory Fleck Byrne, as warm and radiant a suitor as any guy could hope for). When they’re out at a restaurant exchanging rings, or just basking in each other‘s company, the worry lines fall off his face, and the natural hollows of his cheeks seem to fill back in. Harry is his escape from what’s out there. But that also means that “what’s out there” has to remain a secret. Why would he want to bring his daily nightmares home? That would mean reliving them 24/7, and he’s already on the verge of doing that. And what if Harry were to judge him for all the ways he’s screwed up? But of course, Harry can’t understand the increasing distance between them, because he can’t begin to fathom the horrors of life as a junior doctor. The very point of the series is: who could? That the relationship is failing is nobody’s fault; the pressures of Adam’s job negate the potential for real intimacy.
In a similar fashion, the on-duty Adam is just as tightlipped about his homelife. Not just because it’s 2007 and he’s hesitant to talk about his sexuality, but because compartmentalization is part of what keeps him sane. “You should mention the gay thing at work,” a colleague advises him at his bachelor party, which is basically his coming out party to most of the people at his job: “People would warm to you more.” But Adam doesn’t have the luxury of small talk; he doesn’t have time to worry how he comes off. He’s just trying to get through the day with his patience – and his patients — intact. The walls he’s built up are his defense; if he started to open up to colleagues – if he began to treat them as friends and confidants — he’d lose perspective and focus, and the system would eat him alive. As counterpoint to Adam, the real-life Kay gives us a student doctor at the same hospital (Ambika Mod, and she’s excellent), who’s got her exams coming up. She’s overworked in the same way Adam is — more, perhaps — but she’s new enough to the NHS that she’s still an optimist. She craves the approval of her colleagues, and dreams she can make a difference — and for all intents and purposes, she’s doomed.
There’s really only one way that This Is Going to Hurt descends to the routine tropes of television. It offers up Adam’s mother as a harridan of a rich-bitch socialite: forever looking down on her son’s decision to work for the NHS, and not merely uncomfortable talking about his sexuality, but willfully patronizing to his fiancé. (When she tries to get into Harry’s head over the long hours Adam is going to be spending at the hospital, and Harry insists, “He’s perfect for me — that’s all that matters,” she gives him a look of such withering condescension, you just want to slug her.) And then in the final episode, the script inserts one of those sickly scenes designed to make us reassess our opinion of an awful parent — as scripts so often do, late in the game. (Here it’s filled with platitudes like “I just want you to be happy” and non-apologies like “I’m sorry if you think I’ve been hard on you.”) I think the first time I witnessed one of those final-reel reversals was in the screen adaptation of Butterflies Are Free in 1972; I’ve had 50 years of “here’s why I was such a rotten parent” monologues. And you know, by that point in the series, it really doesn’t matter, because the show has built up such goodwill that you’re willing to forgive it anything. The show has exceeded every expectation you had for it — as a hospital drama, as a character study, as a love story, as an exposé. It’s created something novel in the way it’s refused to be typecast. Like Ben Whishaw, it’s been moving a bit too fast for you to keep up — and you don't mind at all.
There’s something almost defiantly agreeable about Martin Freeman. Even when he’s verbally abusing his children on Breeders, he has those features — the eyes that convince you he’s seen more pain than he’s willing to admit; the faint, sad smile of a man who’s come to accept a heavy burden — that make him relatable and appealing. The Responder is easily the most challenging series he’s taken on — it’s the best kind of star vehicle; it showcases him, but it also lets him flex his acting muscles. Urgent response officer Chris Carson, who’s working the night shift in Liverpool, is on the verge of collapse. His home life is a mess, and his mental state is fragile — plus he’s gotten in bed with some Very Bad People. As with This Is Going to Hurt, The Responder comes with a readymade air of authenticity: the script is by Tony Schumacher, himself a former police officer who worked as an urgent responder. Schumacher doesn’t judge Carson; he offers him understanding and empathy, while stopping just this side of compassion. Like Adam Kay, Carson is a natural survivor — he’s just been doing it a lot longer. But it’s beaten him down in much the same way, to the point where he’s sought professional help. But baring his soul doesn’t come easily to Carson. The process feels endless and intrusive, and he lacks the clarity and the patience to relive decades of bad decisions. When his therapist assures him they’re making progress, he shuts her down, weary and defeated, eying himself the way one would an engine in need of repair, where only the results matter: “We both know I’m not fixed.”
The remarkable thing about The Responder is that, for all of the lead character‘s faults and failings — for all of the ways he skirts and even breaks the law, for all the underworld lowlifes to whom he’s grown beholden — we root for him to succeed. It’s hard to imagine a Freeman vehicle where we don’t, and that’s why his casting here proves so crucial to the success of the series. Carson may have misplaced his moral compass, but Freeman convinces you that he’s still the kind of policeman who belongs (and is needed) on the streets — if he can just get his head on straight. No, he’s not going to play by the rules. He’s not going to carry out his duties with a light touch. But he also understands, from his years on the job, how adhering to the letter of the law can do more harm than good. And he understands, too, that sometimes people need protection from the law itself. That for some of Liverpool’s offenders, it’s better for him to look the other way than to trap them in a system that’s going to offer no real help, merely incarceration.
The first episode is a splendid setup for the four that follow. Carson comes to the aid of a young prostitute who stole a suitcase of cocaine from a mid-level drug dealer, then lost it — at least that’s her story. His desire to rescue her is a noble one; his response to the events that follow — which leave him in possession of the drugs, with which he tries to abscond — is decidedly not. We meet rookie cop Rachel Hargreaves, who’ll ultimately become his new partner, and we get a taste of the dynamic to come. She and her current partner enter a scene after Carson has beaten up a suspect. (Carson, at the end of a long night, has been summoned to an apartment complex to bust up a nightly row between neighbors; he proceeds to unleash his exhaustion and fury on one of them, first verbally — “If you don’t open this door, I’m gonna come through it, and then I’m gonna come through you” — then physically.) When he lies that the suspect provoked him, Hargreaves offers up the sort of assessment that will make her such a thorn in Carson’s side: “He shouldn’t be in his job,” she insists to her current partner: “Just look at the state of him.” And as counterpoint, her partner takes a stab at helping her (and us) understand how this grizzled first responder — who at times is indistinguishable from the lowlifes he puts away — got the way he is. He defends Carson against the rumors of impropriety that have been swirling around him for years (rumors that happen to be true): “Part of the job is working with people who you wouldn’t be friends with if you met them in real life. He was a cracking bobby back in the day. Good sergeant too.” But he’s also quick to remind Carson, in no uncertain terms, “You need to sort this shit out ….. You need to sort yourself out.”
Although Freeman has you in the palm of his hand from the first reel, Schumacher takes pains not to rely entirely upon Freeman’s persuasive onscreen persona. He makes use of a familiar writers’ crutch: the audience surrogate. As Hargreaves, Adelayo Adedayo proves crucial to the success of the series. In a more traditional drama, Hargreaves would’ve restored Carson’s sense of values; here, it falls to him to wise her up. At the start she’s almost unbearably sincere. Her way of telling off Carson is to remind him, “You’re supposed to be a police officer.” Like Ambika Mod’s student doctor in This is Going to Hurt, she still affixes an old-fashioned nobility to her profession; the hard truth hasn’t hit her yet. (And if her crippling naïveté is the only alternative to Carson’s jaded cynicism, you’ll take his cynicism any day of the week. At least it gets the job done.) She's so green, in fact, she’s taken in by a scammer who sounds convincing only because he’s impersonating a character straight out of countless TV crime dramas. Ultimately, as she comes to recognize how she’s been conned, and witnesses the realities of the streets and the system, she begins to understand Carson’s manner. She warms to him, and opens up to him (she has a doozy of a backstory, which might strain credulity if Schumacher hadn't already engaged in his own con, convincing you that what you're witnessing is as much docudrama as procedural), and crucially, Carson comes to Hargreaves' rescue when she needs him most. His methods and his instincts don’t just win her over, they save her life.
Ultimately, The Responder is the story of a decent man who’s gotten himself in too deep — and knows it. He’s always been able to extricate himself from even the thorniest of situations — he still has a lot of goodwill where he works — but with his faculties failing, his homelife crumbling, criminals breathing down his neck and a rookie partner who’s wedded to the letter of the law, will he be able to pull his fat out of the fire one last time? Does he still have the savvy, the connections and the luck that would permit him to do so? Will the knowledge he’s amassed over a lifetime of police work — not to mention his unerring instinct for self-preservation — serve him well in the end? The beauty of The Responder is that you really don’t know the answer until it comes, and when it comes, you’re both surprised and satisfied. You didn’t see the show going where it did, but once it gets there, you’re thoroughly convinced.
Around the World in 80 Days has proven a sturdy vehicle, and if it’s going to be refurbished for a new generation of viewers, Ashley Pharoah is a fine choice to do it. A writer whose work I've admired for decades, his scripts consistently prize character over plot. On something like Life on Mars, it made the difference between an episode I liked and one I quite loved, and his addictive 2016 series The Living and the Dead — the rare character-driven horror story — came and went much too quickly. The thing about Around the World in 80 Days is that the bare bones of the plot — the scenery and the urgency and the sweep of it all – aren’t going to impress us anymore. We’ve seen it all — in life or on the screen. Nailing down the characterization is crucial.
In an earlier essay, I noted that one of David Tennant’s key attributes as an actor is an eagerness to please; he demands not merely to be seen, but to be enjoyed. It’s infused everything I’ve seen him do, particularly his stint on Doctor Who. Sometimes, that eagerness to please is used as a misdirect, never more successfully than in Daisy Coulam’s Deadwater Fell; sometimes it’s an impersonation designed to impress (Des). Around the World is the first time I’ve seen him abandon his bond with the viewer. There’s nothing eager or inviting about his Phileas Fogg. Oh, he has his moments of assurance and bravery and passion — conjuring up an engineering feat that allows a train to ease across a battered bridge, standing before a military tribunal and making the case for desertion as an act of bravery — but the way Pharoah shapes it, and the way Tennant plays it, it’s clear that those are aberrations. He doesn’t come away stronger from each experience. He doesn’t seem to learn anything. He doesn’t become a different or better man, step by step, stop by stop. And if you’re unimpressed by Fogg for the first five or six weeks, Tennant makes it clear that he couldn’t care less.
The one thing you know when you see David Tennant‘s name attached to a project is that he’ll show you a good time; remove that promise, and you have no idea what to expect. And that’s exactly why Tennant works better here than anyone else I can imagine. Once he establishes that he’s no longer eager to please, once that familiar factor has been removed from the equation, you’re in uncharted territory — just like Phileas Fogg himself. And even as you’re reeling from that missing element, you’re floored by how ill-equipped for travel this version of Fogg is. He lacks drive, ambition and gumption. He’s foolhardy and grumpy — and inherently meek. He’s disinclined to make a fuss — it’s not in his background or his breeding. At a bank in Hong Kong, some five episodes in, he discovers his finances have been blocked — and he just accepts it. That far into the journey, he’s still a pushover. It’s a far cry from the way Fogg is typically portrayed — it’s nothing like what Jules Verne did with him in the first place — but not only does it prove to be a startlingly effective way of sustaining the narrative, but a career-bending choice for Tennant. It’s striking to see Tennant essay a role like this, let alone resist the urge to play to Fogg’s more impressive traits. But it’s mesmerizing. In doing so, he makes a familiar scenario fresh; we have no idea what emotional journey Fogg is going to make. We have no idea what kind of journey he’s capable of making. Tennant gives us no clues. He loses himself in the character, and seemingly finds the man’s capacity for bravery and empathy as we discover it ourselves.
What Pharoah’s adaptation makes clear is that it’s not the incidents along the way that change Fogg; it’s the bonds that he forms. The crucial sixth episode (of eight) finds Fogg and his two companions stranded on a desert island, where they hash out all the issues that have been plaguing them for months. We realize that it’s these new friendships that have nourished him, that have enabled the sort of growth of which he once seemed incapable. So crucially, Pharoah pays particular attention to the delineation of Fogg’s traveling companions.
The specter of British colonialism and racism looms large over Verne’s novel. Pharoah doesn’t try to erase it — he can hardly rewrite history — but he can use the companions to reflect our own contemporary misgivings, and to further Fogg’s emotional journey. Fogg’s valet Passepartout (now a black man, played by French-Malian actor Ibrahim Koma) is given a political background that not only opens up storylines, but ultimately opens up Fogg’s eyes — and of course, Fogg watching his traveling companion fall prey to vigilante justice in the American Old West reaps the expected dividends. And in the newly conceived Abigail Fix (Leonie Benesch, a German actress who manages to feel as British as Big Ben), Pharaoh gives us someone so determinedly forward moving that she can drag Fogg along with her. She’s the sort of overused character I’m predisposed to hate — the “girl reporter” of an earlier age, the kind “determined to succeed in a man’s world” — and she’s stranded with awful lines like “I’m sick of being my father‘s daughter” and “I’m going to be a proper writer,” but Benesch does well by her. I wasn’t convinced by the budding love story between the two supporting players — or if I was convinced, I frankly didn’t care much about it — but there’s no denying that the pair, as respectively reimagined and imagined, suit the narrative splendidly.
They’re terribly flawed characters, the three of them, and they hurt each other quite a lot along the way. And yet, by the end, when they take off on their next adventure (because no TV show now, however clearly designed as a limited run, is ever permitted to stop if it’s a hit), you totally buy into it. Around the World in 80 Days is a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the word. It’s the party you end up enjoying much more than you expected. Its “country of the week” format gives it an air of silver-dish service that’s all but irresistible. You never know what you’re going to get when Pharoah lifts the lid on the next episode, but it turns out to be something just as tasty as what came before. And David Tennant, by resisting the urge to ensure that we all have a good time, proves the perfect host.
All four series are currently available on BBC iPlayer. Here in the States, Around the World aired on PBS, The Tourist is currently on HBO Max, and This Is Going to Hurt and The Responder are coming soon to AMC and BritBox, respectively.
Want more? Check out an essay called "Rough Edges," in praise of two addictive comedies that I discovered in 2021, Back to Life and The Other Two; another entitled "Private Faces," highlighting two spectacular series that emerged in the fall of 2020, Roadkill and Life; and a third entitled "Unwilling Victims," taking a look at three recent series by and about women: The Trial of Christine Keeler, Deadwater Fell and Flesh and Blood. I offer up The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching, Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss, and my most personal essay, inspired by the death of my puppy Czerny in June of 2021, The 10 Most Comforting TV Episodes About Death.
If you like in-depth looks at hit shows, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, Maude Season 2, Newhart Season 7, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; serve up my 10 Best Episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Designing Women, WKRP in Cincinnati and Kate & Allie; pen an appreciation of Mike & Molly; and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. Or if you prefer dramas, check out my write-ups of of Criminal Minds Season 8, Judging Amy Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Doctor Who Series 8, Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent, ill-judged Netflix miniseries), and fourteen essays devoted to all the seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries: not (necessarily) the best episodes, but the best whodunnits.