Rooted in noir tradition, the suspense thriller of the “your past is catching up with you” variety is well-worn. So how does one reframe it in a way that feels at once fresh while also familiar, so as not to alienate increasingly impatient audiences? Therein lies the challenge for any new entries into the space, and one that Netflix’s latest Harlan Coben collaboration, “Stay Close,” ultimately fails, despite a decorated cast led by Cush Jumbo and James Nesbitt, even if their performances are the best thing about the series.
In “Stay Close,” Jumbo stars as Megan, a suburban mother of three whose previous life as a stripper named Cassie, along with the lives of those she thought she’d left in the past, come back to haunt her, threatening to ruin the perfect present-day reality she’s created for herself. The history summarized: once a popular dancer, one of Cassie’s customers (Stewart Green, played by Rod Hunt) became dangerously obsessed with her, an obsession that went to extremes when she began dating an ambitious photographer named Ray (Richard Armitage). Green ends up mysteriously dead, and Cassie vanishes.
But is Green really dead? And if he is, did Cassie (or Ray) kill him? Answer to questions that haunt almost every episode come eventually. Spoken of but never seen or heard throughout, Green may as well be “The One Who Shall Not Be Named,” whose spirit looms large. “He’s back,” the series repeatedly informs us, and he’s looking for Cassie. Once the victim of Green’s violence, traumatized, she skipped town; although, because the Blackpool-set series’ geography isn’t adequately defined, it’s unclear whether she simply changed her name and moved a few streets over, or to another borough, jurisdiction, city, or even country. It’s an unfortunate oversight, one that weighs on any comprehension of the series’ stakes.
Cassie’s exit plan is hasty, meaning she ghosts everyone she knows, including love of her life Ray, and Lorraine (Sarah Parish), a co-worker and confidant.
Seventeen years later, Cassie is living as Megan, a mother of three children engaged to be married to Dave (Daniel Francis), a burly chap with a secret of his own; Ray is a mess, slumming as paparazzi for hire; and Lorraine has cancer, with only a few years to live.
Quickly introduced are hard-bitten Detective Broome (Nesbitt) and his partner Cartwright (Jo Joyner), an ex-couple now investigating a string of missing men cases, Green’s included. (By the way, Broome also happens to be caught up in a fling with Lorraine — a relationship that becomes pivotal to the main investigation.)
There’s Harry (Eddie Izzard), a shady, drug-using associate of Megan’s, and possibly her legal counsel; Kayleigh (Bethany Antonia), Megan’s oldest child, whose prying inevitably puts her in harm’s way; Del Flynn (Ross Boatman), a father determined to find his missing son while he tends to his comatose hospitalized wife; Barbie and Ken (Poppy Gilbert and Hyoie O’Grady), a pair of bounty hunters hired by Flynn, whose sadistic methods — amid sudden flippant song and dance routines — place them in an entirely different series; and Goldberg (Jack Shalloo), a high-ranking copper to whom Broome and Cartwright report, also with a secret of his own that has bearing on the cases his detectives are working to solve.
Plenty is certainly afoot. However, contrary to what seems like popular belief, unnecessarily convoluted, intertwined subplots propelled by flashbacks, MacGuffins, dei ex machinis, and the misadventures of a multitude of characters, don’t innately translate to intrigue or suspense.
There’s more tension in Alfred Hitchcock’s single location three-hander “Rope” (1948), or Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ariel Dorfman’s play “Death and the Maiden” (1994), than “Stay Close” can wring out of its tiring cliffhangers and dangling threads, scattered throughout an eight-episode season.
It isn’t set in a single location, but a club called Vipers is central to the main plot. Given the type of male clientele the establishment typically attracts, it’s a name so crude that any early expectations of a clever, delicately complex, distinct story, style, or structure should vanish just as swiftly as Cassie fled. And getting through the season becomes a slog.
The ongoing investigation into the whereabouts of several missing men steadies “Stay Close,” especially as bodies start to pile up, including that of would-be rapist Carlton Flynn, contemptible father-to-be Guy Tatum, and others, all last seen during the local Carnival (“an easy night to make someone disappear”) in consecutive years. This eventual realization by Detectives Broome and Cartwright suggests a pattern. Perhaps it’s the work of a serial killer, they consider.
One suspect after another is alibied, except for Ray, who leaves enough of a trail that makes it difficult to exonerate himself. But is he the killer? Who knows. Or maybe the question to ask is whether any of it matters. Jarring tonal shifts are more like inquiries into whether to take the series seriously or not. Although, its schlocky, numbingly conspicuous score is always present to dictate how the viewer should feel.
There’s an attempt at commentary on the vilification of sex workers, gender-based violence committed against women and girls, and vigilante justice, all of which could’ve benefited from further script rewrites. But, ultimately, “Stay Close” sticks to every cliché native to the hackneyed story of a protagonist’s past coming back to haunt them, disrupting a newly created idyllic existence; just when Cassie thought she was out, they pull her back in!
It’s the kind of series made for binging, leaping from one cliffhanger to the next like a trapeze artist without the agility and lyricism. And while it’s atmospheric, it simply isn’t compelling enough to become addictive. But fans of previous Harlan Coben Netflix collaborations should ease comfortably into this one.
In August 2018, the author inked a five-year deal with Netflix to bring 14 of his novels to the streamer as series, and “Stay Close” follows other Coben-created Netflix originals “Safe” (2018), and, in 2020, “The Stranger,” “The Woods” and “The Innocent” — each a middling breeze that’s content at being nothing more. “Stay Close” doesn’t attempt to be anything different, and is equally forgettable.
There is some sense of satisfaction to be derived from the last two episodes as it clunkily solves its many mysteries, even if it’s of a self-congratulatory nature for making it that far into the series. But it takes a laborious path to get there, and by the time the gift is fully unwrapped, in a lengthy, exposition-heavy confession, the surprise is, if not anticlimactic, then just plain silly. It’s the kind of tabloid fodder that the Lifetime Network’s programs are made of, with Netflix’s imprint.
Netflix premieres all eight episodes of “Stay Close” on Friday, December 31.