Imagine, for a minute, that you’ve spent years of your life working on a novel, or a TV show of that novel, only for your project to draw comparisons with an existing programme before it's even aired? Must be pretty annoying, right, having your work hastily filed next to some other thing that sort of looks or feels the same? That is, of course, unless you’re author Paula Daly, screenwriter Anna Symon, and all the others behind ITV drama Deep Water, based on Daly's novels, who I imagine must be thrilled to be riding on the coattails of none other than the multi-award-nominated Big Little Lies.
In commissioning an adaptation of Daly’s bucolic, female-led thrillers, it seems ITV was already trying to channel the BLL effect. But even if it was an unintentional move to follow in the footsteps of the Reese Witherspoon-produced US saga which came to a close last month, it was a shrewd one. Since the huge box office success of Gone Girl – based on Gillian Flynn’s novel – the 'unputdownable book you bought at WHSmith in the airport and actually really enjoyed' genre has enjoyed a new lease of life. Other hits, like Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard and another Flynn bestseller, Sharp Objects, have enjoyed their own adaptations, while sales of crime fiction are soaring, overtaking those of general fiction.
And so to Deep Water, whose similarities with BLL are both surface-level and also quite intrinsic. The six-parter follows three women, Lisa, Roz and Kate, who also live in a beautiful, coastal setting – not quite California, but the wholesome surroundings of Lake Windermere in Cumbria. Lisa (Anna Friel) is a very busy mum who runs a kennel business and who – naturally – we never see doing any of her very important work. Roz (Sinead Keenan) is a hard-up physiotherapist whose previous business went bust; to hammer home the point, one of the first scenes involves her having her home ransacked by bailiffs. And then there’s Kate (Rosalind Eleazar), the wealthy mum with too much time on her hands – so much time in fact that she decides to invite Lisa, a woman who she occasionally chats with for five seconds at the school gates (cheers BLL), over for dinner.
If there’s one particularly weak link in the opening episode – besides the fact that there are far too many plotlines vying for attention, and that Kate’s eyepatch-wearing son is cast as a creep, which feels slightly problematic – it’s Lisa’s behaviour at said dinner party. Half-spoiler alert: she does something rather indiscreet in the bathroom, something that the Monterey Five would never have done with the door wide open. Even though you get the feeling that it might be a bit of a red herring once the other, more troubling plots start rolling in, it is still one of those moments which plants Deep Water firmly in the 'WTF is wrong with British drama sometimes' camp. When Doctor Foster’s son went on the run at the end of series two and Suranne Jones smashed the fourth wall to deliver that painful 'please come home' speech to camera, for example, it felt like the show had crossed over from the realms of barely possible to full-on, disbelief-free ridiculousness. Although the effect isn’t quite as jarring here, it’s still a reminder that we’re not in the world of polished, writers' room-crafted US television.
However, even at its soapiest and most unbelievable, Deep Water is very good at conveying human emotion and what it's like to have your life slowly but surely crumble around you, as it does for each woman in different, interconnected ways. Perhaps it’s here, in the portrayal of very different women by three very talented actors, that you’ll find the fairest BLL comparison of them all, and the tension which keeps Deep Water afloat. Often, it’s the despondency on Friel’s face, or a look in Eleazar’s eyes which doesn’t quite match what she’s saying, that will keep you hooked, rather than another budget Fifty Shades tryst or six more characters whose names you’ve already forgotten.
The truth, of course, is that Deep Water isn’t groundbreaking. Really, it has more in common with something like downtrodden ITV crime drama Unforgotten than it does the supersized, Andrea Arnold-directed BLL. Poor, tired Lisa looks as though she actually smells of wet dog, while Kate is a very specific type of subtly sly British social climber. But for all the BLL comparisons, maybe what will resonate more is the fact that these women really do seem to be terribly miserable and unsure of themselves, and besides Kate, they don’t have the material trappings to distract themselves from their problems. Besides, with the end of Big Little Lies overshadowed by criticism from Arnold – who claimed to have had her creative control taken away during season two – one good thing about Deep Water is that we’re getting a female perspective, through Daly’s story and Symon’s adaptation. And with Sinead at her happiest when her brother buys her family a Chinese takeaway, complete with prawn crackers, who wouldn't want this kind of representation?
Deep Water starts on ITV on Wednesday 14th August at 9pm