[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
That “Save Me” is a story of a father in search of a lost child is just one of the ways that the deck seems stacked against it. It’s set in London, presented with the veneer of a crime tale: two more elements that could make it easier for the casual browser to glance over. TV isn’t exactly at a loss for shows in any of those categories.
But there are also plenty of reasons that the series took home the Best Drama Series BAFTA earlier this year, none more electrifying than the performance at its center. Lennie James (maybe familiar to most TV fans as Morgan Jones on “The Walking Dead”) stars as Nelly Rowe, a man whose relatively freewheeling life gets upended when he finds out his estranged daughter Jody has been kidnapped. Working not only to find her but to clear his name as a suspect in the process, Nelly winds his way through a tricky web of friends and criminals (in some cases, both).
It’s an arresting performance from James, who can pivot from playful to driven to menacing in seconds. Nelly could easily become the kind of morally conflicted main character that TV has in bunches, but both on the page (James has written 10 of the series’ 12 episodes so far) and in practice, he’s more than just someone else who the title could apply to.
Wearing his distinct yellow jacket like his own special uniform (though not quite a detective and not really a superhero), James does plenty to capitalize on the specific details of the search, all without unloading too much of Lenny’s personal history all at once. Lenny can be impulsive or gentle or consumed with self-doubt at any of these turns. Watching James unpack all those layers, meticulous bit by meticulous bit would make this show well worth watching on its own.
That’s also surrounded by a mystery that’s compelling by itself, and not so manipulative in the “putting young girls in danger” way that can also be a well-worn TV shortcut. “Save Me” isn’t all about Nelly, even if his rogue decisions end up shaping the fates of everyone he cares about. Each of the two seasons has its own separate arc, though they’re tied together by the man at the core. (Here are some additional thoughts on Season 2, and I’ll echo that it both works as a brilliant epilogue to a complete story and a potential jumping-off point for a longer look at Nelly’s world.) Neither of them make for particularly light or casual viewing, but there’s some humor (however dark) along the way to break up anything overly self-serious.
“Save Me” ends up being a little bit of everything, particularly when it comes to the man looking for and providing the answers.
One More Reason to Watch: Obviously James is the main draw here, both as a writer and performer. But he’s not the only anchor. Through all the turmoil and setbacks and tears, Nelly’s local pub The Palm Tree becomes a gathering place for all those swirling emotions. All those scenes are filmed at a real establishment with the same name, giving an even more lived-in feel to sequences bolstered by the appearances of Suranne Jones, Stephen Graham, and the other members of a terrific ensemble.
Pair It With: Jacob Banks’ 2018 album “Village.” The breakout song “Slow Up” — which also led to one of the more memorable performances in recent “Jimmy Kimmel Live” history — plays a key emotional part in Season 2.
Other Fans: Rhianna Dhillon spoke with James in an hourlong conversation for the BFI in the middle of last summer, near the release of Season 2.