TV towards the end of 2020 had taken a decidedly DIY turn. Like, a lot of thought had clearly gone into it and it was very admirable considering the circumstances but at a certain point, watching much-loved but unshaven British actors talking to each other over Zoom got a little...meh.
Which is why the BBC's BIG new TV drama is exactly what we need to kick off this brand-new, (hopefully) better year with a bang. Created in conjunction with Netflix, The Serpent is a luxurious, global period piece which feels reassuringly expensive and marvellously reflective of the kind of big-budget drama that we used to be so capable of making.
Obviously filmed before the pandemic took hold, this eight-part thriller series tells the true-ish tale of Charles Sobhraj, a serial killer and conman who murdered and robbed at least 12 Western tourists along the so-called 'hippie trail' in the 1970s.
Stretching between western Europe and Goa and Bangkok, the hippie trail was a popular route for young Europeans and Americans looking for adventure between the '50s and the '70s. Thousands of beatniks (as they were then known) travelled from hostel to hostel along a well-worn overland route through countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, India and Thailand, in search of alternative tourism and an escape from the formal social expectations their elders tried to place on them at home. It was the original backpacking trip, back before gap years became gap yahs. Increasing troubles in the Middle East and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan put paid to the hippie trail at the end of the 1970s but before then, for Charles Sobhraj and his accomplices, it provided a steady stream of victims.
Sobhraj, a French national with Vietnamese and Indian heritage, is portrayed in The Serpent with chilling precision by French actor Tahar Rahim (The Prophet), his sharp suits and sophisticated manner striking a startling contrast to the variously appropriated national dress items adopted by the long-haired travellers. His equally well-dressed 'follower' and lover, Marie-Andrée Leclerc, is played by Jenna Coleman and, posing as gem dealers and photographers, the two lure unsuspecting travellers into Sobhraj's growing collective. Only some will make it back home alive.
The disappearance of a young Dutch couple is enough to spark the interest of a diligent young secretary from the Dutch embassy in Bangkok called Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) and his German wife (Ellie Bamber). Knippenberg appears to be the only diplomat in Thailand not using racist language or taking advantage of his job to abuse both local women and intoxicants. The narrative jumps between Sobhraj committing his crimes and, months later, Knippenberg following leads from one incompetent European diplomat to another to try and track down the travellers from his home country.
There's so much to like in The Serpent: the frightening soullessness Rahim injects into Sobhraj, the fast-building tension as authorities from various countries join (or refuse to join) the hunt for their missing backpackers. The costumes and settings are covetable and the mind-boggling hopelessness of the task of locating travellers in a 1970s world is enough to fill any modern internet user with a horrifying sense of dread. The script is sharp and pulls few punches in damning the liberties taken by entitled diplomats in the lesser developed countries that played host to them and the corrupt manner in which they wielded their Western passports.
Perhaps most importantly, unlike other dramas which focus on real crimes, the real-life victims in The Serpent are repeatedly named and given personalities. It would perhaps have been nice to take advantage of the international cast of characters and showcase some lesser known German, Canadian or Belgian talents but hey ho; this native English speaker will leave the accents and deliverance of different languages by the mainly British cast to native speakers to dissect.
The Serpent is exactly the kind of optimistic start we need to 2021. It's hardly the cheeriest of shows but it feels substantial and reliable in a way that things haven't for a long time. Start as we mean to go on and all that.
The Serpent starts on BBC One at 9pm on New Year's Day