“The Essex Serpent,” starring Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes, is an intriguing drama that probably won’t be for everyone… but it rewards those who don’t mind a show that’s strange and murky.
Premiering Friday (May 13) on Apple TV + – and based on the bestselling 2016 novel of the same name – the story is set in Victorian-era England and follows Cora Seaborne (Danes), a London widow who has a keen curiosity about science and the natural world (especially paleontology) and loves reading Darwin. After her abusive husband dies, she’s free to pursue the life she wants. Intrigued by newspaper reports of a “sea dragon” sighted in Essex, she travels there to investigate, she’s convinced that the serpent could be a real creature that escaped evolution.
There, she stays with the local vicar, Will Ransome (Hiddleston) and his wife, Stella (Clemence Poesy, “Harry Potter”). She connects with Will, even though he disapproves of the mass belief in the serpent and is determined to convince everyone that it’s not real. Although Cora and Will represent a typical “faith versus science” argument, they polite about their differences, and this plays out more like a dance between them than a true fierce clash.
Unfortunately for Cora, things become complicated when a local girl turns up dead, and, because Cora is an outsider enthusiastic about finding the serpent, the villagers view her with suspicion.
The Essex Serpent is hard to categorize. It’s got elements of mystery and a death that sparks a series of events, but it’s not a “whodunit.” It’s got interpersonal drama, since Will and Cora forge an emotional bond that goes past the boundaries of propriety, despite the fact that Will is married – and, to complicate matters, Cora’s friend from London, the ambitious and slightly smarmy young surgeon Luke Garrett ( Frank Dillane), has the hots for her. He’s dismayed to see her going off to Essex in what he sees as a foolish endeavor and a waste of time.
The show’s romantic elements are understated; the series isn’t a bodice- ripper like “Bridgerton” or “Outlander.” And it’s probably got too much Victorian-era surgery scenes to appeal to fans of those shows (or of lighter period-piece fare such as “The Gilded Age”). Audiences who liked the Clive Owen series “The Knick” or the underrated 19th century murder tale series “Alias Grace” will enjoy it.
The show also has a prominent focus on the nature of superstition in an insular community, with characters conversing about Marxism and Socialism. For the most part, all of these disparate plotlines and themes blend well together. Tonally, it isn’t as messy as it could be – an impressive feat, considering the scattered nature of these topics.
But the narrative does feel meandering. “The Essex Serpent” is part of the age-old “something spooky might be happening in this remote coastal area” genre most recently exemplified by “Midnight Mass,” but it’s not as sharp or suspenseful as that series, since it’s less committed to a particular category.
Hiddleston and Danes both turn in predictably solid performances. Danes bristles with a steely-eyed determination, while Hiddleston neatly sidesteps giving Will “small town vicar” cliché traits and infuses him with a thoughtful air.
The show is moody, with lots of picturesque shots of rivers, bridges, cobblestone streets, and marshlands in the English countryside. It’s not self-serious, but it also doesn’t have much levity or humor.
For those looking for a period drama that feels focused and tightly plotted, this will likely disappoint. But, for viewers who don’t mind a sprawling show that’s odd and unique, with a heavy dose of Victorian-era science and intellect, “The Essex Serpent” delivers.