Over the last two nights I’ve slogged through seven episodes of The Serpent, a limited BBC One / Netflix series about notorious serial killer Charles Sobhraj, who murdered between 20 and 24 young tourists during 1975–1976.
Directed by Tom Shankland and Hans Herbots and co-written by Richard Warlow and Toby Finlay, it’s an annoying, patience-testing, spirit-draining ordeal… it plods along and never ends. It’s an uphill hike.
Tahar Rahim plays Sobhraj, an ice-cold sociopath whose opaque company I immediately didn’t care for. (He lacks that mesmerizing Hannibal Lecter magnetism.) A friend had recommended that I watch this thing, and within the first 20 minutes I was texting him with remarks like “I have to hang out with this asshole for seven more episodes? I’m really not digging this.”
I instantly disliked the whole damn package, although I did find the Asian settings alluring. The show was mostly filmed in Bangkok and Hua Hin, a resort town in Thailand’s Prachuap Khiri Khan Province. At the very least I came away with a fuller appreciation for the look, sounds, aromas and textures of Thailand. That was nice.
Otherwise I felt bruised by the flat, clunky dialogue and particularly by the endless flashbacks and the way it just goes on and on and on. (It should have been a four- or six-hour series.)
The fact that nearly every character was constantly smoking cigarettes drove me nuts.
I was driven up the wall by Jenna Coleman‘s glassy-eyed, impossible-to-read performance as Marie-Andrée Leclerc, who was Sobhraj’s partner and accomplice. (Her final scenes in episode #8 are her best.). Dutch diplomatic staffer Herman Knippenberg, the guy who investigated and hunted down Sobhraj, is played by Billy Howle with the fakest-sounding Dutch accent in the history of filmed drama. I despised Amesh Edireweera‘s performance as Ajay Chowdhury, who was Sobhraj’s sleazy, bushy-haired errand boy.
The only costars I could stand were Ellie Bamber as Knippenberg’s wife Angela, and Tim McInnerny as a Graham Greene-ish Bangkok character named Paul Siemons.
Live text transcript….
HE: Why is the Dutch backpacking couple so gullible, so trusting? Any idiot could see Sobhraj is bad news.
Friendo: It was the ‘70s…hippies overseas, peace and love…they were trusting back then. Different time…people were fleeing the cynical US for what they thought was nirvana overseas. And the villain knew this, was able to charm them, and then take advantage of them
HE: Tahir and his girlfriend and that smiling, long-haired, Amesh Edireweera are putting out signal after signal that they’re untrustworthy.
Friendo: Not sure if Sobhraj was a con artist first and a killer second or the other way around. Anyway it’s a true story, man, and they’ve made several docs on this guy and Tommy Thompson supposedly wrote a great book about him (“Serpentine”). Thompson spent years overseas researching this guy, and ended up dying of some fucked up liver disease prob from shit he ate over there while writing the book
HE: Not a fan of the dialogue.
Friendo: Are you on Episode #1?
Friendo: It improves as it goes along. It becomes very compelling once the Dutch consulate guy gets into it.
HE: Smiling spirit-guide girl smiles WAY too much. Buddhist monastery bullshit.
Friendo: Give it a chance beyond one episode. Did you ever watch The Jinx or Chernobyl?
Friendo: Did you like those?
Friendo: You have to stop looking at a period film with modern eyes. Serial Killers were just getting started. Bundy was just starting his spree. The FBI weren’t hip to the whole serial killing thing until later. No one, least of all naive hippies looking for drugs and sex were aware of people like Sobhraj.
HE: These people are obviously bad motherfuckers.
Friendo: They’re fucking horrible. But what’s fascinating for me about the series is the young Dutch consulate character and how he was able to track him down…no police training and yet he was the one who pieced it together.
HE: Don’t like it.
Friendo: To each their own. But you liked fucking Godzilla vs. Kong…okay.
HE: The monastery girl is driving me nuts. Sobhraj is SO obviously a bad guy. And the smiling, bushy-haired guy [Amesh Edireweera]…I hate that fucker.
Friendo: You’re supposed to — he’s vile
HE: Monastery girl is so stupid, flashing her money around. I have to hang with this asshole for seven more episodes?
Friendo: It’s 50/50 with the Dutch guy
HE: I don’t even like him that much. Monique is just as much of a monster. This series is rancid. Good God…now they’re flashbacking to their first meeting in Kashmir? Spare me. “Six months earlier…ten months earlier…eight months later.” Kiss my ass. Filmed in Bangkok and beachy Thailand! “Is this a test?” “It’s a game.” People are always getting sick in their company. I’m dying myself.
Friendo: I get it, Jeff — you don’t like it
HE: It’s not good enough. It meanders. It’s repellent.
Friendo: Rotten Tomatoes gave it 61% critic rating and 100% audience so maybe there’s a disconnect here
HE: The fucking Dutch guy won’t stop smoking cigarettes. Fuck you and your filtered fucking cancer sticks!
Friendo: Did you not understand that Europeans smoke a lot? ?
HE: They’re repeating the shit with the monastery woman again!
Friendo: It’s told from different characters’ perspectives so there are occasional overlaps. Did you like the Versace limited series?
HE: I hated that series because I hated the guy playing the killer.