Issues of practicality and predictability can doom any mystery, and “Run” falls prey to both, and far too often. Picking up with the titular inciting incident — old sweethearts leave their new lives behind to run away together — and pulling every possible writer’s trick to keep from revealing the couple’s backstories, Vicky Jones’ romantic thriller (produced by frequent collaborator Phoebe Waller-Bridge) often feels like it’s taking its title too seriously; if it would just slow down and let Ruby (Merritt Wever) and Billy (Domhnall Gleeson) talk things out, then the real story could start. Instead, two talented leads guide the audience through a bevy of bizarre choices and convenient circumstances, all en route to a will-they-or-won’t-they partnership you can’t really support.
Ruby Richardson is introduced while complacently sitting alone in her family-sized SUV, staring blankly at the dual Ralph’s and Target shopping centers waiting for her across the parking lot. Fielding a call from an unheard voice on the other end, she’s torn between getting to use her new yoga mat and making it home in time to meet the guy delivering her husband’s speakers — well, presumably it’s her husband. The diamond glistening on her ring finger implies as much, in case the domestic planning session didn’t.
But then she receives a text: one word, one name. Billy says “Run.” Actually, he says “RUN,” in all CAPS, which matches the intensity of Ruby’s response. Suddenly, she’s all a flutter — a small bubble of snot trembling from her nose — and when she forces herself to ignore the message, her door bangs into the car parked next to her. An awkward attempt to exit the passenger side is met with equal resistance (from the universe, perhaps?), and Ruby reconsiders the word. She’s trapped, literally and figuratively, unless she obeys the command. So she does, hopping on a plane to meet her college boyfriend in New York.
This kind of tightly written, efficiently informative scene pops up less and less often over the series’ first five episodes, but that it exists at all (and is replicated, no matter how sparingly) points to the potential within Jones’ first TV creation. The temptation to drop everything and start over is a universal thought, if not in every relationship than at least in one or two, and watching this unknown but clearly dedicated couple act it out can be vicariously exciting. Plus, not only is Merritt Wever as excellent as ever, but she’s playing a character rarely afforded her in the past: She’s the lead, and a romantic lead at that; Ruby is an object of intense desire, and she’s the one calling the shots throughout her illicit rendezvous with Billy. Her sense of humor is surprising (there’s quite a bit of poop talk for a prestige TV romance), and her wide range of reactions are enthralling on their own.
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Gleeson, who proved himself an outstanding romantic lead in Richard Curtis’ 2013 film “About Time,” does just as well creating palpable chemistry, though much of his and Wever’s charming work is needlessly undermined by their characters. Ruby and Billy start as blank slates. All we know about them is what we see them do, with minor bits of backstory picked up on their Chicago-bound train ride. Jones relies on the duo’s rapport and the couple’s mysterious origins to carry these early encounters, which works well enough until they run out of excuses to come clean. Ruby and Billy agree early on to a “moratorium” on personal details. They only know what they remember from dating in college, and whatever they found online over the past 17 years apart.
But as urgent calls and strange text messages crack their reality-free bubble — and questions stack up in each of their heads — it becomes clear they need answers. The train ride has to end sometime, and if they were serious enough about each other to run away together, even for fun, then they’re serious enough to want to know who this other person really is. What answers do come are either easily foreseeable, slightly obnoxious, or both. Ruby, through half the first season, fits far too closely to the outdated archetype of a bored housewife. Billy is an arrested-development type, ill-prepared to confront responsibilities. They’re exactly the type of people you’d expect the collaborators behind “Fleabag” and “Killing Eve” to upend; to invite the audience to make assumptions about these two runaways, only to usurp those assumptions to make a valuable point.
Except so far, they only meet expectations, and thus fall short of the series’ on-paper potential. With this cast, Jones’ lead, and Waller-Bridge’s involvement (no matter how minor), “Run” can still find its groove. Once Billy and Ruby stop fleeing from reality and face their past, viewers will know whether they’re a couple worth following. Building their romantic foundation is key to keeping this momentum-at-all-costs train on the tracks, and even though that should’ve happened right away, there’s still time to get it right. They just have to walk before they can run.
“Run” premieres Sunday, April 12 at 10:30 p.m. ET on HBO.