The science-fiction-flavored cop thriller Hard Sun squanders one of the most audacious hooks I’ve ever seen in a TV series. In scene after scene, it demonstrates a knack for doing the least interesting thing possible with its great central idea, to the point where a hate-watch becomes inevitable. I’ve used the word “wasteful” in reviews before, but always to describe a production that expends prodigious amounts of money and effort for no good reason. I don’t believe I’ve ever used it in conjunction with a show that wastes a great idea. But the lack of imagination displayed here merits a break with tradition.
Created for BBC One and Hulu by Neil Cross, the writer-producer behind Luther, Hard Sun is set during the run-up to an extinction-level event. The sun is dying (thus the title), and all life on Earth will be wiped out in five years. If you take even a few moments to imagine what daily life might be like under such circumstances, you can already see the artistic possibilities. Mythology, literature, drama, cinema are all filled with stories of people who either find themselves living in circumstances where morality and law have no influence, or else decide there’s no law/justice/God/etc., and then have to decide to either be a good person anyway or embrace the spirits of anarchy or selfishness.
But the best that Cross can do with the apocalypse in Hard Sun is keep it in the background while a lurid mix of graphic novel and pulp noir clichés swirl in the foreground. This being the modern era, you’ll almost certainly go into the pilot episode knowing full well what the series is about, and just in case, Cross gives you an early scene that explains the whole thing via what looks like an app. But the main characters — mismatched partners Detective Inspector Elaine Renko (Agyness Deyn) and Detective Chief Inspector Charlie Hicks (Jim Sturgess), a couple of Riggses without a Murtaugh — don’t learn the particulars until the very end, after devoting a full hour to fleshing out backstories that are instantly rendered uninteresting by the revelation that the sun is about to wipe out humankind.
The general public doesn’t learn of the possibility of extinction (and the government’s plan to quell unrest by herding people into camps) until deep into the second episode. Soon thereafter, the prospect of mass chaos is neutralized by a government disinformation campaign that forces the journalist who reported it (with help from Renko and Hicks) to recant. There’s a masked, V for Vendetta–type activist-vigilante who counters the official narrative, but it takes a very long time for public suspicion to renew itself in a way that affects the plot. The impending apocalypse is mostly treated as ominous window dressing for a typically “gritty” series in which cop-on-the-edge types investigate a conspiracy while chasing unhinged murderers and spree killers who who wouldn’t be out of place in a substandard Luther arc. Both Renko and Hicks have deep, dark secrets that ultimately prove to be connected, but not in a way so engrossing that you’d rather Hard Sun spend time exploring those details at the expense of, oh, I don’t know, maybe showing what happens when all of civilization gets a death sentence at the same time.
Soon enough, you get the disquieting sense that Cross and company don’t have the faintest clue of what to do with their premise, and have only deployed it to freshen up a substandard, ultraviolent cop show that would otherwise be unremarkable. Hard Sun is one of those series where action scenes — including car chases, foot chases, hand-to-hand fights, and depictions of mass murder — seem intended to delay having to deal with anything deeper, because cop-show stuff is easy to write and the big questions aren’t. It rarely delivers anything like a philosophical gut punch, even though the possibility regularly presents itself. Soundtrack composer Neil Davidge insists on the awesomeness of what you’re watching by scoring the program with an undifferentiated mass of Hans Zimmer–like repetitious percussion and Inception-style BraaaahhhHHHHMMMM! sounds. Blood splatters on walls and carpets, knives go shunk! into flesh, cars careen around hairpin turns, and Renko and Hicks get into trouble — with their superior officers, with MI-5, and with each other — but at no point is there any reason to care. Even Deyn’s Tilda Swinton–esque jawline and wingless angel body language aren’t enough to distract from the sheer monotony.
Hard Sun is a series that cares about everything except the most original and fascinating aspect of its own existence. Sitting through it is like watching time-lapse footage of a prospector confidently digging a deeper and deeper circular trench around an “X” that he marked on the soil with great pride and considerable care. Six hours later, the treasure is still in the earth.