Five Days: "Day One"

(Premieres tonight on HBO, 8 p.m. ET)

(Note: Five Days is a miniseries that unfolds over the next five weeks on HBO. I intend to cover all five episodes on this blog and see how it evolves. Since it doesn’t premiere until later tonight, I’ll be writing this review with minimal spoilers, but all subsequent posts will go live after the episode in question has aired and will be written in anticipation that you, the readers, have already seen it. In addition, I’m deliberately refraining from watching the entire mini-series right now, even though I have access to it, so I can experience it piecemeal like a regular HBO subscriber. What can I say? I’m a man of the people.)

Produced in collaboration with the BBC, the miniseries Five Days follows the abduction of an attractive British mother and her two young children (and their pound puppy), and the investigation and media firestorm that builds up around the case. As the title implies, each hour covers a day’s worth of events, but the twist is those days are not consecutive; the first episode covers Day One, but the next four jump to Days 3, 28, 33, and 79, which should make for some fascinating dissonance. What happens between the days in question? What information is missing? And how will the show fill in (or not fill in) the gaps?

Of course, the rewards of the show’s clever structure are not yet apparent in the first episode, which dutifully sets the table for the other four. Still, there are several moments that suggest that blank spots are going to be planted all over the story—in what the characters know, in what we the audience knows, in what nobody but the writer knows until she’s good and ready to reveal it. Five Days unfolds with a bare minimum of flash, and its flat, unaffected style requires a little patience, because there are a dozen or so major characters to introduce and a lot of narrative business to get out of the way. At first, it could easily be mistaken for the sort of ripped-from-the-headlines procedural that’s common TV fodder. But it quietly gains momentum in the second half and ends with the sort of cliffhanger that can make serialized television well-nigh irresistible.

En route to take her two youngest kids to visit their great-grandfather, a young mother (Christine Tremarco) pulls off at on off-highway ramp to buy some flowers. She leaves the kids in the car and hikes over to the vendor across the street, who’s operating out of a van. A few cars pass and she’s gone—and not long after, the van’s gone, too, leaving the children to fend for themselves. Dog in tow, they go out wandering on their own until a stranger pulls over and offers to take them to their mother. And just like that, they’re gone, too. The great-grandfather phones the police, but it takes a while before the authorities take the case seriously; the mother has a reputation for being flighty and chronically late to everything, so a few hours’ detour isn’t out of the question.

Once day turns to night, though, and the police find the empty car on the side of the road, things get serious. Suspicions immediately falls on the woman’s husband (David Owelowo), a fitness trainer who doesn’t seem to have the best relationship with her, and is definitely on the outs with his teenage stepdaughter. His in-laws (Patrick Malahide and Penelope Wilson) treat him more cordially, but all the scrutiny placed on him will surely fray that bond as well. Then there are the two investigators (Hugh Bonneville and Janet McTeer) in charge of the case, who also show signs early on that they’re not entirely in sync. Much as all the affected parties live in dread of the publicity the case will inevitably drum up, a police PR agent has to prepare them once a local paper stumbles on a much juicier scoop than the “Golden Wedding Couple” headline it was planning to run. And then there’s an ordinary woman (Sarah Smart) who makes a startling discovery at the end of the episode that ensnares her, too.

Five Days could have covered the case from any number of perspectives—the victims’, the perpetrators’, the family’s, the investigators’, or the press’. But much like The Wire (an unfair standard, granted), it’s pretty democratic in terms of how much time it spends with each character and institution. This is a problem in the early-going: Why, for example, are we forced to spend mundane minutes with an unknown woman—on an airplane first, and later just moseying about her home—when there’s no indication of where she fits in until the very end of the episode? The pieces all fall into place eventually, but there’s not much effort made to suck viewers in right away. Were it not for the kidnapping itself, the early scenes would have virtually no intrigue whatsoever.

And yet, I’m guessing I won’t be alone in thinking that next week can’t come too soon. Writer Gwyneth Hughes knows well that miniseries are marathons, not sprints, and she’s confident enough to lay out the introductions at an unhurried pace, and set up some very subtle fissions between the characters that will pay off later. By the end, I was surprised by how many questions I had about what had happened and what the people involved might be hiding. In other words, I’m hooked and I’m hoping some of you will get hooked, too, so we can throw around some theories together in the coming weeks. 

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

• It’s nice to see Janet McTeer resurface in something good. The very tall actress got an Oscar nomination in 2000 for her brassy performance in the indie drama Tumbleweeds, but subsequent appearances in Songcatcher (where she’s excellent as a professor gathering folk songs in Appalachia) and the awful Dogme movie The King Is Alive weren’t enough to keep her in the picture. She looks to be a force again here, though.

• Some awesome stuff here involving those outdoor surveillance cameras that are supposed to make police work so easy. The police get some valuable footage, but the cameras don’t cover every angle, so the story they get from them is incomplete.

• If you don’t have an HBO subscription, can’t wait for tonight, or don’t care how you watch it, the entire first episode is available here on streaming video. It looks terrible, but hey, it's free.

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