“Hard Sun” offers a premise as high in the sky as the glowing orb itself, but has no idea what to do with it. Two British detectives discover that the world is coming to an end and have to choose between trusting their government and making it public. That’s Episode 1. In Episode 2… well, to say what happens in the second episode would get into spoilers territory, even though the second hour of Neil Cross’ half-baked co-production between Hulu and the BBC is much more representative of what the show is and what it gets wrong.
Even in a traditional-sized British season and truncated American one — six episodes — the gritty crime drama bounces around within a hollow sci-fi story, mixing conventional elements of a police procedural with a more serialized narrative about an exploding sun. Very little of it works, be it the half-assed intermediary cases that barely hold up to logic or the broader conspiratorial arc that makes even less sense. “Hard Sun” is so busy trying to be everything at once it doesn’t take the time to get the details right (including a flawed initial premise). If this fictional world is ending, you’ve got to give us a reason to care.
Meet Charlie Hicks (Jim Sturgess). Charlie is an experienced, corrupt detective running a unit who just lost a man — his best friend and partner, Alex Butler. Torn up by the death, Charlie is on his last legs trying to keep his life together. He’s resorted to robbery in order to support Butler’s widow, Mari (Aisling Bea), and now a new detective, Elaine Renko (Agyness Deyn) has joined the ranks with a not-so-secret mission to find out if Hicks was the one to off his buddy.
Elaine has her own baggage. Just as Hicks is introduced during a nighttime home invasion, viewers first meet Elaine when she’s being brutally attacked by a man who turns out to be her son. Why sonny is pissed at his mom enough to blow up her house (with her in it) is a mystery left dangling for a few hours, much like Hicks’ innocence or guilt in relation to Butler’s death.
Their more immediate concern is the whole end of the world thing — or it should be. Is the sun going to explode and kill us all? Is it going to harden up and cause a nuclear winter even Kim Jong Un would envy? Should they, you know, tell anyone? These two polar opposite cops — one a renegade who works outside the law, the other a by-the-book goody two shoes — have aptly different takes, but they’re stuck with each other nonetheless, largely to our detriment.
Sturgess’ overzealous, ineffectual performance isn’t really his fault: He’s been touting this conflicted bad boy attitude for years (most recently in the more admirable failure, “Feed the Beast”), and it just doesn’t play here. He looks like a baby, even with that dark beard, so he tries to make up for it by playing extra tough, which doesn’t sell. Someone with more investment in the series should count the times he shouts something innocuous into a phone — knowing the action will play better for Sturgess on camera than it would for Hicks in the scene. Deyn is more convincing, but she’s saddled with a whole slew of melodramatic nonsense that cannot be overcome.
Despite the big question hovering over the series, “Hard Sun” spends a good chunk of its six-hour first season watching these two chase random bad guys who start killing people because (again, keeping it spoiler-free here) they come to believe the world is going to end. No, really: That’s it. They just kind of snap and start doing very, very bad things.
It goes without saying that the murderers are crazy (who, for what it’s worth, could be easily stopped by so many random citizens), but that’s as far as Cross wants to develop their mentality. Cross, who created the Idris Elba-starring “Luther” before this, provides no nuance to their decision-making or investment in their perspective: They are bad guys who the cops have to catch. They spout crazy ideas that are easily dismissed, rather than challenging questions meant to discombobulate the cops and provoke the audience. So ill-defined are these men, they unintentionally turn the series into a parody of hard-boiled detective stories (which makes the badly timed bits of humor even more ludicrous).
Plenty of violence ensues, but there’s no thought to it. It’s as though the writers’ idea of success is seeing these characters survive until the world ends, which isn’t the most compelling TV narrative. Despite the inexplicable success of “The Walking Dead,” end-of-the-world stories work best when there’s a reason for the highest-of-high stakes: Either the heroes can stop it (here, they cannot), or there’s a way they can be happy before it all ends (again, these people cannot, nor do we care if they are). Even better, using a global threat can create ways to contemplate equally grand ideas, like the meaning of life and what happens after we die.
“Hard Sun” puts the entire world on a clock, but there’s no real urgency. It doesn’t contemplate the idea of mortality so much as it sends its characters scurrying through case after case, occasionally tying things back to the bigger picture. To make up for the lack of substance, the cast is asked to overact; quickly, any ties to the show’s inspiration — David Bowie’s song, “Five Years,” about finding beauty in life’s small wonders — slip away. The end merely doubles down on the first episode’s unfulfilled promise. It’s all talk and no action, making this “Hard Sun” full of hot air.
All six episodes of “Hard Sun” Season 1 will be released on Wednesday, March 7 on Hulu.