The Essex Serpent Season Premiere Review: Blackwater Heart
The Essex Serpent provides brilliant period costumes but does not live up to expectations with intriguing yet slow premieres.
The Essex Serpent Season 1 Episode 1 took a lot of time to set things up, and we quickly got bored.
Claire Danes dons her best British accent, and Tom Hiddleston is as handsome as ever, but neither of them can save the show from itself.
Based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Perry, Danes plays Cora, a recently widowed Londer who embarks on a trip to Essex to investigate a mysterious serpent.
She got swept up in the mystery, influenced by her previous natural history research and her grief.
There’s also a potential love interest: the doctor (Franke Dillane, Fear the Walking Dead) who tried to care for her husband before his passing.
The doctor, Luke, quickly became taken with Cora and pined after her often in both premiere episodes.
The Essex Serpent Season 1 Episode 2 showed Luke continue his infatuation for Cora as Cora continued her infatuation for the alleged serpent.
There may also be a potential love interest between Hiddleston’s Will (the vicar) and Danes’ Cora, but Will currently has a wife (Clémence Poésy, The Harry Potter franchise).
We hope that the show DOESN’T introduce a romance between the two leads (even though, based on the trailer, we suspect otherwise), as having them be investigative partners and friends would be much more enjoyable.
The second premiere hour did improve slightly on the first, but the show still fails to provide enough mystery.
The intrigue of the Serpent often gets sidelined by the other storylines that often don’t seem to influence the plot.
Martha (Hayley Squires, Collateral), Cora’s friend and maid, returned to London to retrieve more of their belongings for Essex and got to know Luke and his business partner Dr. Spencer (Jamael Westman) better.
She got close with Dr. Spencer and discussed a lot of her socialist beliefs with him.
This whole socialist storyline (along with Doctor Luke’s surgery storyline, more on that later) seems to be a way to pad episode length.
The show’s intrigue comes from the Serpent and the lead characters’ interactions, but it does not deliver in the first two hours.
Another secondary storyline involved Doctor Luke and his surgery endeavors.
He has lost many patients, but not his regular practice: his experimental heart surgery.
He finds severely-injured patients and performs heart surgery on them (whether or not they actually need it).
Martha witnessed one up close; luckily, his first successful one.
The success immediately goes to his head, turning him into even more of a slimeball than he already presented.
Once Martha and Dr. Spencer realize this, they take post-care matters into their own hands (because Dr. Luke got distracted by the fame).
The side plots dragged heavily, even though they sound semi-intriguing.
We wish that the side stories improved on the show, but they take away from the leading storyline: the Mysterious Serpent.
Even though Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston provide their incredible performing prowess, one performer outdid them: Lily-Rose Aslandogdu (The Alienist).
Her performance as the young girl Naomi blew us away!
From the sadness for her missing sister in the first segment to the strange possession-like reactions at the end of the second: she affected us.
The final scene at the end of the second chapter sold us on the mystery/horror aspect of the show, but it took 100 minutes to get there.
Young Naomi proved to be one of the only people who think they’ve seen the serpent, affecting her mental state immensely.
During Cora’s class (that quickly got out of hand), the entire course of students turned on Naomi, and Naomi herself started having strange spasms/seizes.
We don’t know what caused these spasms, but the chanting about the serpent caused her to have an adverse reaction.
Cora was also completely baffled by that reaction, with the story cutting off just as all the other students in the classroom collapsed.
While we don’t know what’s happening in The Essex Serpent (similar to the main characters), we hope this six-episode limited series picks up the pace.
With the lack of coherent storytelling comes a certain amount of distaste, and the debuts made us feel a bit alienated.
Of course, we still have high hopes for the rest of the season, as the story still promises to keep us interested (and the actors are great).
But overall, as a series, it disappoints, and hopefully, fans of the novel will be happy.
Adapting a book to the screen almost always ends up being more miss than hit, but Apple TV+ has had recent success with Pachinko’s first season.
There are some fascinating topics brought up throughout the series, but only a few are fleshed out to a point where they seem useful.
A constant religious undertone works quite well: the townsfolk think that the serpent is a sign of the devil/the devil himself.
Having one of the two leads be a vicar (who also seems to be hiding things) develops well into the plot.
The other topics (like socialism, women’s rights, etc.) don’t get enough information/purpose to make them seem worth the story’s time.
Then there’s a whole world of fossil research and Natural History that gets glossed over with “I did research on this” and then is not developed further.
We want The Essex Serpent to improve, and it seems to serve best when it embraces its horror roots.
The efforts to make it a sweeping drama of biblical proportions fail immensely, but it shines when it embraces the terrifying nature of a mysterious, unseen creature.
Hopefully, as the series is only six segments, it learns to embrace the weird and stray from the typical victorian drama.
The production design and direction are pretty unique, and we believe the story can match the caliber of creativity presented.
Whichever way it’s told, keep it here on TV Fanatic as we hold out hope for improvements!
So Fanatics, what did you think of the premiere episodes of The Essex Serpent?
Did you enjoy them, or were you pretty disappointed like us?
Let us know in the comments below! The Essex Serpent airs on Apple TV+ on Fridays.
Michael Stack is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.