tv review

Suspicion Is a Lecture Masquerading As a Thriller

Photo: Zach Dilgard

There is a scene in the first episode of Suspicion, Apple TV+’s latest overly prolonged thriller, that unintentionally demonstrates the series’s inflated sense of self. Irish-accented bad guy Sean Tilson (Elyes Gabel) — whether he’s just an assassin or also a terrorist is unclear, but Suspicion loves to position nonwhite characters as dangerous, so who can say? — is flying first class back to Belfast, and heads into the plane’s bathroom before disembarking. While staring into the mirror, he reverses his jacket, peels off his beard and mustache, puts on a ratty-looking wig and pair of glasses, and fills in a scar on his face with concealer. It is a hilariously basic disguise, but Suspicion treats it like a scene out of the exponentially superior The Americans, in which Suspicion co-star Noah Emmerich also played an FBI agent. When the (allegedly) transformed Sean walks out and mingles with other travelers, hiding his identity and sneaking through airport security, Suspicion wants us to ooh and aah at his spy craft and subterfuge. You thought it was one thing, the series intones, but it was really another. Did you get it? Suspicion is convinced of its own cleverness and righteousness, but very little over the course of its eight episodes provides any evidence for either.

The series, the first two episodes of which premiere today, is the latest in Apple TV+’s relationship with Israeli productions (following Tehran and Losing Alice), and is loosely inspired by the Israeli TV series False Flag, in which five Israeli citizens are accused of kidnapping an Iranian government official. Showrunner Rob Williams sloughs off that specifically geopolitical angle in Suspicion, and instead builds mystery around a group of Brits who are accused of kidnapping the son of an American media mogul. Without the decades-long tension that exists between those at-odds nations, this version of Suspicion instead asks grander questions about truth and lies, corruption and complicity — and answers with consistently facile suggestions about how we can better the world.

“What if people were just honest?” the show has characters ask in various arrangements, as if “the truth” is something upon which billions of people would agree. “What if the rich grew a conscience because the rest of us asked them to?” it wonders, as if Mr. Robot didn’t spend four exceptional seasons inspecting the murky ramifications of disrupting power structures, standing against the wealthy, and interrupting linear time. Suspicion really thinks it is doing something with the “tell the truth” slogan chanted by protestors in the series’s back half, but the resulting atmosphere is one of unrelenting condescension from the show’s creators toward the people watching it.

Perhaps it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Suspicion shares some DNA with a certain Netflix movie gathering a fair amount of Oscars buzz. But knowing Suspicion’s ultimate mentality helps provide some context about its broad ambitions and unfulfilling execution. Suspicion seems to think that digging into important topics alone is enough to make for good entertainment, forgetting that well-rounded characters, believable relationships, and compelling dialogue are also required. But the series puts all that on the back burner as it goes through genre motions, obfuscating motivations in a way that dampens interest instead of generating it and making most of its characters — whether “good” or “bad” — surprisingly passive.

For a narrative in which five people are running for their lives and another is kidnapped and held for ransom, Suspicion moves at a painfully slow pace, perhaps because every character is forced to pause each episode and consider what the truth really is. The causes of our inattention are everywhere, from viral videos to obsession with the royal family to capitalism itself. Yet the solution Suspicion offers to inspire a revolution against such distractions is laughably silly in its inability to consider the drastic action that might be needed to combat decades of culpability and appeasement. Entertainment doesn’t have to present ways to save the world. If a series takes it upon itself to do so, though, it needs to offer more substance than Suspicion does.

Suspicion begins with the abduction of 20-something Leo Newman (Gerran Howell), the son of “strategic communications” bigwig Katherine Newman (Uma Thurman), from the hallway of a New York City hotel. The video of four people wearing rubber Halloween masks of the royal family attacking Leo and shoving him into a suitcase goes viral quickly, pushing both British and American authorities into action. The list of Newman’s enemies is long, she tells FBI Special Agent Scott Anderson (Emmerich), because of her company’s model of “construct[ing] a version of reality that is usually at odds with someone else’s.” Anderson, though, is sure that he can crack this case, especially since four British citizens have already been identified as suspects. So he travels to London to work alongside investigator Vanessa Okoye (Angel Coulby), and they begin looking into the four people who were all staying at the same hotel where Leo was grabbed on the same night.

The group is seemingly unconnected. Sean, whose various nefarious activities around the world have saddled him with an international “red notice” from Interpol, is a criminal, but the other three are outwardly normal (and only have a few characteristics each). Oxford University social-psychology professor and single mother Tara (Elizabeth Henstridge) loves her daughter and has a chip on her shoulder as a result of her not-posh upbringing. Banker Natalie (Georgina Campbell) is fiercely protective of her sister and mother, and has spent years planning the perfect wedding to her fiancé. Adept hacker and aspiring cybersecurity entrepreneur Aadesh (Kunal Nayyar) is frustrated by his overbearing in-laws and their mockery of his business dreams. Sean, Tara, Natalie, and Aadesh are all hiding secrets — primarily about money, and what they’re willing to do to get some — and in Vanessa and Scott’s eyes, that makes them unpredictable, untrustworthy, and dangerous.

As the season progresses, Suspicion jumps between the suspects as they maintain their innocence, Vanessa and Scott as they spar over investigative techniques, and Katherine as she worries about her son, but there’s no sense of urgency on either a micro or macro level. The only visual experimentation comes from onscreen text messages and grainy surveillance videos. The characters are such ciphers that it’s difficult to feel any connection to them whatsoever, and the backdoors the narrative leaves open for their escape from stressful situations drains the story of tension. (Is it a nod to the geopolitical ideology of the original series that the only crime lord shown onscreen in Suspicion is Iranian?) Even as the suspects are brought in, questioned, tailed, and chased; join forces, lie to each other, and betray one another; and eventually reveal their true colors, Suspicion barely breaks a sweat. The series’s interior world is so thinly rendered and its patronizing tone so prevailing that the impact is more lecture than thriller.

Perhaps this is most obvious when Suspicion attempts to take on money and the outsize role it plays in all elements of our society: who we judge to be good, what transgressions we’re willing to forgive, and what parts of our soul we’ll trade away. What’s somewhat revealing, though, is the way Suspicion paints everyday people as somehow worse than billionaires for giving in to the pressures of capitalism. Each of the suspects is criticized and harangued by their loved ones for trying to claw for survival, while people at the top are given the chance to beg forgiveness. Suggesting that the actions of a few individuals are worse than the corporations that run the world is a feckless stance, and yet it’s exactly the one that Suspicion adopts. For a show that wants to shake us out of inattention, Suspicion’s greatest fantasy is its belief that all it takes is one good billionaire to change the status quo.


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Suspicion Is a Lecture Masquerading As a Thriller