One of the cardinal sins a TV drama can commit is showing its audience how hard it’s trying. Sometimes that ends up as a symptom of a series desperately trying to dress up a simple premise with some overly aggressive trappings. That’s not necessarily the case for ABC’s “Ten Days in the Valley,” a new 10-part limited series with a meta-conceit and enough inherent drama to keep audiences hooked.
Where the show falters at regular intervals is by packing its character list with a bevy of competing allegiances and extreme shifts that only makes the show’s self-awareness more frustrating. Somewhere near “Scandal” by way of “Murder She Wrote,” it’s never quite as interesting as the sum of its parts, stuck in a pedestrian execution of a crime paperback setup.
Kyra Sedgwick stars as Jane Sadler, the producer of successful police procedural “Internal,” her latest professional effort after a career in documentary filmmaking. Despite a lavish house and a loving relationship with her young daughter Lake (one early sequence involving some hip-hop dancing is one of the series lone moments of happiness before descending into chaos), her nonstop work schedule draws complaints from family members current and former, namely her ex-husband Pete (Kick Gurry).
Her overworked idyllic routine is torn asunder when Lake is snatched away from Jane’s home in the dead of night, making an effective Voltron of her disparate stresses: constant disputes with Pete, complicated relationships with former research sources, exacerbated “Internal” production schedules, and (to top it all off) a worsening dependency on uppers of various intensity.
Though we get outside glimpses into the LAPD forces handling the missing persons case, the “Internal” writers room, and the private lives of a number of figures in Jane’s orbit, Jane is the driving narrative force of the show.
Each new bit of information that informs Jane’s character isn’t as much adding on another layer as it is sending her back toward the other end of a pendulum. “Ten Days in the Valley” always wants to be ahead of the audience’s anticipations, but there has to be a reason to keep them guessing. As she bounces around from professional to personal obligations, Jane can’t be the anchor that the show needs. With so much externalized hysteria in the wake of Lake’s disappearance, the show soon becomes as disheveled as Jane’s life, searching for (and forcing) connections between all these far-flung threads just to keep everything sensical.
It’s an overly ambitious approach to a story that might have benefited from a narrower focus. Watching the writers’ room banter of “Internal” is more engaging than one might expect. But even as the show-within-a-show faces a decent amount of relative pressure, the rest of “Ten Days in the Valley” has pitched the drama of finding a missing child so high that it’s impossible for an early-morning blue pages deadline to reach anywhere close to the same level of importance.
As a shortcut around the issue, “Ten Days in the Valley” intertwines the fate of Jane’s show and the safety of her child in an odd way. Crime becomes Jane’s life, which sounds in theory more interesting than it actually is. Descending into a glossy L.A. criminal underground where Korean BBQ kingpins throw EDM house parties, there’s a made-for-TV sheen to everything that results from Lake’s disappearance.
But Sedgwick, ever the consummate TV pro, powers through the frantic demands of Jane, as written. (Jane’s penchant for snorting anything in her path basically turns her into the TV drama equivalent of Mindy St. Claire from “The Good Place.”) Even when her character is pulled in eight different psychological directions, Sedgwick makes each of those personality variables make sense, even if the show has trouble connecting them into a cohesive character.
The series’ true bright spot is Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who manages to find an extra level of warmth in a stock, gruff detective with a workaholic drive and a rocky marital history. For a show in search of both answers and a reason to care, Akinnuoye-Agbaje is a rare source of both.
“Ten Days in the Valley” is a show filled with terrible actors; not the actual performers hired to bring these fictional folks to life (Malcolm Jamal-Warner and Emily Kinney are also solid in supporting roles), but the characters they play. With a central crime throwing everyone into suspicion, it turns every unassuming bystander into a potential criminal mastermind.
That “anyone could be involved” idea only works if the show that it’s feeding demonstrates a clear handle on the characters within it. As “Ten Days in the Valley” plays coy with the truth behind Jane and anyone she’s ever interacted with, there’s a sense of withholding information that feels like the show taking the audience hostage, too. Even so, it might not have been a problem with a little more focus to the plan.
“Ten Days in the Valley” airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.