Seven Seconds Is a Grim But Hypnotic Crime Drama

Photo: JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Seven Seconds, the new Netflix drama about crooked cops covering up a hit-and-run accident and investigators trying to punish them, is another TV series about how a murder affects a community. It’s not the best or the worst of the lot, but at its most intelligent and heartfelt, it generates empathy for its characters, sadness at the culture that shaped them, and anger at the institutions that protect the worst among them. The unaffected emotion in every lead performance saves the bad scenes and elevates the good ones, and the overall spirit of the thing is unimpeachable.

The title describes the span of time in which Jersey City police officer Peter Jablonski (Beau Knapp) could’ve done the right thing after running over a teenage cyclist, Brenton Butler, in a snowy park while rushing to attend the birth of his first child. Instead of officially reporting the accident, Peter phones his supervisor on the drug task force, Mike Diangelo (David Lyons), who arrives at the scene with Jablonski’s two colleagues, Felix Osorio (Raúl Castillo) and Gary Wilcox (Patrick Murney), and instantly conspires to erase the crime. The men will later argue that they thought the boy was already dead — as if that excuses their behavior. The plain fact is that Peter is one of theirs, period, and they don’t want his life to be destroyed for what they perceive as a stroke of bad luck. There’s an element of racial resentment here, too: They’re convinced that, in the era of Black Lives Matter, the whole department will take an unjustified public-relations hit if news gets out that a white cop ran over a black teen, even though Peter didn’t mean to hit him.

What ensues is a cover-up that’s as cynical as it is stupidIt shatters the lives of Brenton’s churchgoing parents, Latrice (Regina King) and Isaiah (Russell Hornsby), and his uncle, Seth (Zackary Momoh), a former gangbanger who just got out of the Air Force. An assistant prosecutor and alcoholic screwup named K.J. Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey) partners up with recently divorced internal affairs detective Joe “Fish” Rinaldi (Michael Mosley) to solve the crime. Their investigation leads them to a possible witness, a Catholic school girl named Nadine (Nadia Alexander), who’s addicted to heroin and turns tricks to support her habit. The case builds and the plot thickens. K.J. is determined to prosecute the hit-and-run as a hate crime as well as a negligent homicide. The tactic feels morally right: Peter didn’t run over the boy because he was black, but he devalued his life because he was, and we see how instinctively racist most of the cops are, including the nonwhite ones. But it’s hard to prove in court.

Seven Seconds is overseen by Veena Sud, the showrunner of AMC’s The Killing, and it displays a similar inability to quit while it’s ahead, often having characters explicate psychology verbally even though anyone who’s been paying attention can already guess which demons drove certain decisions. If you’ve seen or read an epic urban potboiler, you’ll recognize most of the types and many of the story beats. Some of the characters discover that they’re far worse than they’d imagined, while others discover an idealism they thought had vanished, or never existed.

At the same time, though, Seven Seconds has mostly freed itself from The Killing’s addiction to generating contrived surprises by withholding key facts, sending investigators down blind alleys, and pulling the rug out from under viewers at regular intervals. Here, what you see is what you get: a grim but hypnotic mini-series that plays like a hypothetical Richard Price rewrite of The Bonfire of the Vanities, with grubby New Jersey locations and no rich people. There are three, maybe four big twists, but for most of its running time, Seven Seconds is not about what happened, but why it happened — a distinction that the series never loses sight of. The only mystery in the first five episodes is who leaked the identity of the driver to the media, and the series is less interested in answering that question than in watching what happens to the characters when the news gets out.

Sud, her writing staff, and her understated directors (including Ernest Dickerson and the late Jonathan Demme, who helmed the second episode in his final work as a filmmaker) show how hard it is to get even the most basic justice in the United States when you aren’t white and/or rich. Race and class are at the heart of each scene, even when the characters aren’t openly discussing them. “His life does not factor into the equation of this city,” an attorney tells Brenton’s mother, shortly before deciding not to represent her. The story is held together by the overlapping codes and jurisdictions of various tribes — including the Jersey City police department; the drug squad and their significant others; the local gangs, headed by Vontrell “Messiah” Odoms (Coley Speaks), who’s in a wheelchair but still formidable; and Letrice and Isaiah’s church — and by the desperation of people who instinctively close ranks to protect what they have, even when their actions confirm that they don’t deserve to have it.

There are elements that are needlessly overdone, like the many repetitious scenes of K.J., who’s cut from the same sour-smelling cloth as Paul Newman in The Verdict, getting soused and humiliating herself, and the alpha-dog glowering of Diangelo, which is a shade too melodramatic for a tale that otherwise aspires to realism. (Lyons is a powerfully focused actor with star quality; it’s the show’s failure to modulate his intensity that’s the problem.) The first three episodes are rough going because of all the exposition that has to be laid out. But by the time you get to episode four, the gears are purring. The long stretch in the middle — episodes five through seven — is superb, and just when you think that the story has reached a logical, if too-pat stopping point, it keeps going in a way that complicates things, and emphasizes the fact that in life, the story isn’t over just because a few bad people got arrested.

The story becomes more intriguing the further away it wanders from the criminal investigation, which is rarely the case in this kind of project. The crime doesn’t just ignite the black community’s rage and put the police on notice, it shatters marriages and families, dredges up old resentments, rips the scabs off old wounds, and makes the more self-aware characters ask what, if anything, they’re going to take away from an event so momentous. This is a rare ten-hour story that justifies its running time and makes the heroes’ many victories and setbacks feel like acknowledgments of how tedious and frustrating cases like this can be, rather than Pavlovian chain-jerks designed to keep the audience watching whether they’re invested or not.

The commitment to showing a heightened version of life as it is, with a splash of Dickensian showmanship, makes Seven Seconds stand out. In the spirit of Sidney Lumet’s cop corruption films — and TV shows that obviously learned from them, like The Wire and Show Me a Hero — Seven Seconds is shot in real locations. There are no stars, unless you count Regina King and Gretchen Mol (who appears in a small role as an attorney representing the police), and these are actors who are famous mainly for being able to blend in to whatever woodwork happens to surround them. The shock of seeing so many plausibly real-seeming people wandering through real settings amplifies emotions that would’ve been wrenching even if they’d been expressed in a glossy, Hollywood manner.

King, in particular, is staggeringly powerful here, portraying a woman whose faith in God, her marriage, and her family are all upended by the loss of her son. The scene where she chastises her minister and rejects his faith is so raw that you feel as if you shouldn’t be watching it. “I was in a church singing His praises when my son was in a ditch,” she says. “I’m done praying to a God who answers a murderer over a mother.” Nearly as impressive, and sneakily so, is Knapp as Peter Jablonski, a performance so lived-in that if you’d told me he was a cop who’d never acted before but was cast because he was so comfortable on camera, I might have believed it. He captures the specific torment of a man who was raised in a macho culture and has no language with which to describe his feelings going through an existential crisis. Peter plainly sees what he has to do in order to live with himself, but can’t seem to do it. Knapp never asks us to sympathize with the character, just to see him as a weak, screwed-up, self-serving human being.

Although the story does build to something like catharsis, with shreds of hope, it’s not an “all’s well that ends well” finale, because we’ve seen during the preceding nine hours how broken the system is, and we’ve watched so many of its participants covering their asses because honoring the letter or spirit of the law might take away their comfort. It’s rare to see a story of this type that acknowledges how insular, clubby, and easily corrupted the sad remains of American civic government can be.

The phrase “depraved indifference” shows up during a courtroom scene. The term describes people so lacking in regard for the lives of others that they merit the same punishment as those who intentionally cause harm, and it resonates backward throughout the whole story. The sight of Peter and his wife Marie (Michelle Veintimilla) doting on their newborn child is already sickening because we saw what happened before Peter arrived at the hospital. As Seven Seconds goes on, and Marie learns the truth but fails to hold Peter accountable, their scenes become nauseating and ultimately obscene. But Seven Seconds is adamant that while it’s impossible to make a bad situation good, it is possible to make it right, if one is wiling to be honest and accept punishment. It’s only at the very end that we realize that the main story, the prosecution of four men who covered up a teenager’s death, is a distillation of the challenges facing a nation that has gotten way too comfortable with moral, legal, and political failure, and has adopted depraved indifference as way of life.

Seven Seconds Is a Staggering Crime Drama