Hunted debuts tonight on Cinemax at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Hunted is gorgeous bullshit. It is a fairly standard spy storyline—the spy who was betrayed and left for dead returns to the game but doesn’t know whom she can trust—executed so well that it attains a kind of strength solely through being so much fun to look at. The series’ dedication to telling as much of its story visually as it can gives it the feeling of something very high-gloss, even as the story it’s telling is at once perfectly predictable and completely incomprehensible. Hunted isn’t going to be for everyone. In fact, it might not even be for 50 percent of everyone. But the people who find this show and glom onto it are going to be very excited indeed. It’s TV that doesn’t take its audience for granted, even when it’s leading that audience down rabbit trails it’s been down before.
The most remarkable thing about this is how thoroughly it rejuvenates the career of Melissa George, one of those seemingly nondescript British actresses who’s been popping up in all manner of TV series for years now, without leaving much of an impression beyond the deeply negative one she left as a romantic interloper in the third season of Alias. (To be fair, it’s unlikely anyone could have played that character skillfully.) George seems to get stuck with these unplayable roles a lot. She was the one who fell in love with the therapist on In Treatment, for instance, and even if it was easy to tell why the therapist would almost return those affections by looking at her often inscrutable face, it was still a storyline dedicated to going nowhere. George seems to get tossed into roles like that a lot. She’s always the character who, if she wasn’t there, would allow for the story to proceed as it normally would. She’s the unnatural obstacle, with perpetually pouty lips.
Hunted reimagines her as a badass, and it’s more convincing than would be expected. Tonight’s first episode begins with a lengthy sequence set in Tangiers that’s meant to show us the Bad Time that George’s character—Samantha Hunter (yes, Hunter, and get your groans out now, ladies and gentlemen)—is going to spend the rest of the season and series recovering from. George seems to be doing lots of her own stunts, and it’s most evident in the Tangiers section. She fakes getting shot, gets into hand-to-hand combat, and both takes and throws punches convincingly. There’s a brutality to this combat, a close-up quality that many TV series would shy away from. As an added bonus, George is never unrealistically strong for her slight frame. She wins fights through sheer dexterity and momentum, by moving more quickly than her opponent.
Yet the series isn’t merely a vehicle for George’s physicality. She spends much of the season—of which I’ve seen half—in the guise of an American schoolteacher named Alex, who’s been sent by the private spy agency she works for into the home of a former criminal, who’s apparently turned toward respectability. George does a lovely job of negotiating the several different levels of this performance, so that the audience briefly buys into the Alex lie, even as it knows that she’s really Samantha the spy. The bits where Alex is almost found out or where Samantha has to pause her undercover work to get some spy work done are always fun, and the business inside the house where Samantha goes undercover is the best thing about the first four episodes of the season. (It certainly doesn’t hurt that George has a very convincing American accent.)
The show around George is surprisingly entertaining as well. To some degree, this is the sort of espionage hokum that nearly every story set in this world will bump up against. There are double-crosses and betrayals and people who can’t be trusted. There’s the question of just who left Samantha for dead back in Tangiers. There are scenes where Samantha stares at a wall covered in documents and photographs and attempts to draw lines between seemingly unconnected elements. There are the team members back at HQ who help Samantha in the field, yet have their own agendas and plans as well. And there are those who assumed Samantha was dead and are unhappy to see her resurface. All of this will be familiar to fans of the genre, and it’s rare that Hunted does anything too unexpected with any of this.
Yet as conceived by creator Frank Spotnitz—perhaps best known for being the right-hand man to Chris Carter on The X-Files’ writing staff—and shot by directors including S.J. Clarkson and James Strong, Hunted is thrillingly visual in a way that television rarely is. Take that Tangiers section. There’s only the barest of exposition, as Spotnitz’s script and Clarkson’s direction team up to convey as much information through images as they can. Is Samantha hooking up with someone? Then we see her kissing him, rather than lots of exposition or voiceover about the matter. And this extends beyond even fairly basic visual storytelling like that, visual storytelling plenty of other series flunk. The mission that has drawn Samantha to Tangiers is complicated and filled with reversals and betrayals, yet Spotnitz and Clarkson trust George to carry the story and the audience to understand what’s happening. The camera is always precisely placed so the audience gets exactly the information it needs. Spotnitz’s script gives those viewing information exactly when it’s needed. The series doesn’t talk down to those viewing it, as TV so often does.
A sequence following this section is even better, as Samantha recuperates from Tangiers at a remote country cabin. Shot in jarring fashion to convey the passage of time and the heroine’s fractured state of mind, this sequence is essentially wordless, cutting between Samantha getting stronger and her memories of the bad things that have happened to her in the past (at least one of which seems tied to her current problems). The passage of time is conveyed by a series of repeating shots—Samantha sitting stock upright in a bath, her foot hitting a particular marker while running down a dirt path—and the footage is gorgeous, a respite from the dusty browns of Tangiers. It’s in this sequence, with its gorgeous cinematography and jittery edits, that Hunted truly signals it could be something special.
There are little moments like that in every episode screened. Sometimes, they’re not nearly prominent enough, and sometimes, they threaten to take over. Yet it’s this visual quality, along with George’s performance, that marks this series as one to watch, even if it has its flaws. Hunted sometimes pushes too far, and by episode three, there are something like six or seven storylines flying past, without any real indication of how they’re all hooked in together and varying levels of interest inherent in all of them. In addition, while George is fantastic, her interactions with the rest of the cast (which includes Oz and Lost's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Game Of Thrones' Stephen Dillane) often leave something to be desired. There’s a good character here, but there are few immediately compelling relationships. And, finally, the violence in the series can be too much, and it often arrives seemingly out of nowhere. (Those who are horrified by eye trauma should probably skip this one.)
Yet that’s beside the point when considering just how much Hunted does that few other TV series even attempt. Cinemax made a name for itself with Strike Back, but as fun as that series could be, it was a riff on action movie tropes that viewers had seen millions of times before. It’s hard to say that Hunted’s story is anything that fans of the spy genre won’t have heard before, but the way that story is told is so much fun—and so often thrilling—that it doesn’t matter that this is a cover version of a very old song. Hunted feels legitimately like nothing else on TV, and to adventurous viewers, that’s going to count for a lot.