It's the dead of summer and we're all running dangerously low on complex, well-done, edge-of-your-seat shows to watch. It's hot outside, you cannot stomach any more reality television, but maybe you're not quite ready to dive into Battlestar Galactica or any other multi-season series you missed the first time around. Let me offer you a nail-biter of a solution, currently (and pretty newly) available on Netflix Instant: The Fall.
The Fall is a five-episode BBC2 series starring the impeccable Gillian Anderson. She plays Stella Gibson, a British Detective Superintendent who's called in to review a disturbing murder in Northern Ireland—a case that turns out to be one of many, and the work of a serial killer. But The Fall isn't a show meant to keep you constantly guessing which character is going to turn out to be the bad guy; instead, we're introduced to the killer, Paul Spector right away, and we follow his day-to-day life. Neither ghoulishly violent nor over-the-top bizarre, this killer is a loving husband and father as well as a bereavement counselor; the most "shocking" thing about him is that's incredibly attractive (Spector is played by a former underwear model, Jamie Dornan). This unique point-of-view is just one of the many wonders of The Fall.
In five episodes, the show takes its time, checking in on the lives of Spector's clients, following Gibson as she goes for a swim, or staying with Spector as he comforts his daughter after she has a nightmare, knowing that the "mementos" of his kills are hidden in the ceiling above her head. Many scenes are completely devoid of dialogue but full of a creeping anxiety that, more than once, made me aware of how shallow my own breath had become. I watch a lot of crime/horror shows, but this one had me literally biting my nails. It can be an extremely stressful show to watch, and it's less about finding specific clues than it is about the complexity of the characters on both sides of the law. Take, for example, a 911 operator who fields a breathless call about Spector's latest victim. We hear the entire exchange, but as soon as it ends, the 911 operator pushes a button to move on to the next incoming call. It's a small moment, but one of many that colors the world in which these crimes take place.
Anderson is tremendous as Gibson, infusing the character with a cold precision, a strong sense of authority, and a strange, clinical sexuality. She alternately lectures on mating rituals in other countries, ignores her coworkers' attempts to bond with her, and deliberately riles up the serial killer she's chasing, but she doesn't seem to have any magical, Sherlock Holmesian deduction abilities. She's just trying to focus on all the evidence in front of her. Dornan is equally strong, playing Spector as a calm, loving father whose brutal crimes are sharply contrasted with scenes in which he plays with his two kids. When things start to unravel a bit, you see the panic in his eyes as his two completely divergent worlds start to overlap. You see him start to lose the control he seeks (and finds) in killing, and his reactions are perfectly played. You believe him as a counselor and you believe him as a murderer, simultaneously.
Still need more? Okay, let's see: The Fall is like if The Following had sex with Top of the Lake while Hannibal watched.
Of course, The Fall may not be for everyone. There's not a ton of action on this show—you have to wait for the tension to build. The characters are presented full of flaws and pathological tendencies, but without much in the way of explanation; there are no origin stories here. Finally, the five-episode series does not wrap up neatly—though it's already renewed for a second season in the U.K.—so you can't expect to come away feeling like you've completed something.
What you can expect is to finish the episodes feeling desperate to see Season 2. The Fall was a wonderful find on Netflix for me, and I look forward to having it stress me out in the future.