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“Bodies” reviewed

Over eight plot-packed hours, Netflix‘s time-spanning police drama Bodies never quite falls on its face — high praise for a genre whose convolutions reliably start off entertaining and end up infuriating.

The series begins in the present day with Shahara Hasan (Amaka Okafor), a London detective sergeant, engaging in a foot pursuit in the middle of a far-right rally and stumbling upon a body on Longharvest Lane. In 1941, a detective (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s Whiteman) in bomb-rattled London gets a mysterious call to go to Longharvest Lane to make a pickup. There, in the middle of a torrential downpour, he finds a body.

In 1890, a Whitechapel detective (Kyle Soller‘s Hillinghead) is summoned to an alley on Longharvest Lane, where he finds a body. Naked. Shot through the eye, but with no bullet to be found. A strange hashmark or glyph tattoo on the wrist.

Are you curious yet?

Will you be more curious if I add that in 2053, in a London seemingly controlled by a platitude-spewing “commander” (Stephen Graham), a detective’s (Shira Haas‘ Maplewood) snazzy electrical car goes on the fritz in the vicinity of Longharvest Lane? There, she finds … yup … the same darned body.

So that’s four detectives in four time periods and one body, all connected by a doomsday cult, an unspeakable tragedy in 2023 and a future in which technological advancement and utopian equality are accompanied by the sort of autocracy that — spoiler alert — is rarely benign.

Working from the graphic novel by the late Si Spencer, Bodies creator Paul Tomalin effectively whips around among the four storylines, admirably maintaining at least some level of interest in each throughout. The nature of London as a city where past and present intersect down every alleyway allows for easy passage between the periods, and the production design and costumes keep each period autonomous and distinct.

There’s some waxing and waning of momentum, but each detective has pivotal pieces of information at different times, and by the time the plotlines began to mesh in the third or fourth episode, I was fully curious about all the show’s major questions — including those related to the disposed body, the hinted-at apocalypse, the importance of Graham’s character and the fantastic or scientific machinations setting everything in motion.

My investment was rarely as great in the levels of primitive prejudice driving the three present/past threads. Hillinghead, who has a wife, daughter and a predictable Big Secret, is constantly witnessing homophobia. Whiteman, who hides his Jewishness, but finds intriguing rapport with a Yiddish-speaking girl (Chloe Raphael’s Esther), is constantly experiencing antisemitism. Despite being a practicing Muslim, Hasan witnesses very little Islamophobia, but the reactionary protests and messaging in the background are visible if you pay attention.

It isn’t that these elements don’t add nuance, but it’s pretty immediately clear that the show isn’t really “about” homophobia or antisemitism or the dangers of white nationalism. They’re semi-generic waves of hatred for the “other” that are mostly there to justify the plausible appeal of the egalitarian subservience in the future — before viewers remember that catchphrase-spouting fascists are rarely a good thing, even if that catchphrase is, “Know you are loved.”

If you’re a devotee of time-travel paradoxes, you’ll probably figure out the shape of the overall story by midway through. But even if you’re not a devotee of time-travel paradoxes, Tomalin keeps the fragmented plot and its underpinnings clear. The show’s a little nerdy, but not so nerdy that it demands you nerd out on its level. You can just take the show as a mystery/investigation and then tolerate the strained physics to your desired level. Somebody’s dead. Somebody did it. And it probably didn’t go down quite the way you’ll predict.

This is where the actors are crucial. Haas, so spectacular in Netflix’s Unorthodox, is especially good in the show’s most complicated and outlandish context. She has to withstand much of the exposition in the homestretch, and to convincingly play the character forced to navigate the choice between an enslaved utopia and a free dystopia; she does it without hitting a false note. There are multiple episodes in which the directors — Marco Kreuzpaintner for the first four and Haolu Wang for the next four — clearly realize that if you have only a limited special effects budget, putting Haas in a tight close-up and letting her summon tears can make viewers buy in to almost anything.

Coming off an award-worthy turn in Andor, Soller brings a sturdy earnestness to the closeted family man archetype that represents the show’s most derivative element, while Okafor has an assertive physicality that anchors the part of the story that needs to be the most propulsive. Both Fortune-Lloyd, providing Old Hollywood panache, and the always reliable Graham excel by welcoming the less savory aspects of their characters, who do things that are tough to forgive, delivered with interesting pragmatism.

The supporting cast features fine work by Raphael, Tom Mothersdale, Synnove Karlsen, Greta Scacchi and more. Even though parts of the show sound silly if you describe them to people, nobody in the cast is performing like they’re in a silly show.

That’s how Bodies ends up working as well as it does. Maybe it isn’t quite ambitious enough to become a story that lingers on an emotional level, but it does general justice to the wildness of its premise and generates investment for the humans caught in the middle of it.