“Seven Seconds” is a series so intent on creating drama, it often forgets the point behind such weighty scenes of loss, grief, and anguish. Whether it’s overly focused on a squad of cops who are objectively bad men, or a little too keen to watch a brokenhearted mother weep, Veena Sud’s unwieldy Netflix original series is carried along by a sturdy “Law & Order” structure and another superb turn from Regina King.
Meet KJ Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a young assistant prosecutor who’s given a case the cops describe to her as a “slam-dunk.” That’s good, because Harper is in no shape to handle anything challenging. A semi-functioning alcoholic with a knack for falling asleep during her karaoke number, KJ is your classic self-hating narcissist. She will drink or sleep with anything that serves as a distraction from her painful existence, even though whatever she’s suffering from doesn’t become clear until deep into Season 1.
Oh, and that “easy” case she just landed? Yeah, that’s not going to help. Though the cops want to sell her on the idea that a non-functioning alcoholic hopped behind the wheel and forgot that he ran over a human being, enough evidence points to the contrary. KJ has to slowly put the pieces together in order to discover who, exactly, sent young Brenton Butler to the hospital, but the audience doesn’t: The very first scene of the pilot shows exactly what happened.
An off-duty cop in a rush to see his pregnant wife in the hospital gets distracted by a phone call, and he’s the one who hits Brenton. Instead of calling an ambulance, he calls his friends from the precinct and they insist on covering his ass. Yup, officer Peter Jablonski (Beau Knapp, working with one of the best New Jersey cop names ever given to an actor) wants to turn himself in, call it an accident, and take his lumps — an emotion that will recur throughout most of the season.
But his fellow cops, led by Mike Diangelo (David Lyons), remind him of the current political climate: “Do you watch the news?” Diangelo says. “White cop, black kid. No such thing as an accident.” Jablonski relents, a cover-up is attempted, and it’s up to KJ — with the help of Fish (Michael Mosley), a goofy homicide detective with a goofy name — to sort fiction from truth and prove it in court.
A crime occurs, an investigation begins, and all the juiciest drama plays out in front of a judge — simple enough for an anthology season, right? It could be, but Sud and her squad of young writers twist the story into knots in order to create conflict. Such machinations would be more forgivable if it didn’t feel like so much time gets wasted in these 10 hour-long episodes (with more than half the entries clocking in over 60 minutes and a finale that’s nearly feature-length). After about two episodes, you’re praying for a ridiculous twist, idea, or even an inane comment in order to liven up a slow-moving non-mystery.
Luckily, Regina King covers what she can with a gripping degree of awesomeness. As the worried mother, King is constantly in flux; her reactions never feel repetitive, even though she’s given and surrounded by plenty of emotionally redundant story beats. Asked to cry, rage, question, sit in stunned silence, and reach every other corner of the pain spectrum (a few times for most of them), King absolutely crushes it. Whether she knows the scripts are giving her scenes of similar terrain or if she’s just that dialed in to the moment-by-moment transformation of Latrice, King elevates her supporting role so much it often feels like she should be the sole focus.
Yet, she’s not even the star. That burden goes to Ashitey, and while no one should hope to compete with King, a two-time Emmy winner, on a scene-by-scene basis (only Carrie Coon has given as good as she’s got in a toe-to-toe showdown), the lead of “Seven Seconds” is hamstrung by character flaws she can’t make up.
[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers through the final episode of “Seven Seconds” Season 1.]