“Landscapers,” the latest limited series collaboration between HBO and Sky Studios, is a thorny backyard project, sowed to the edge of overgrowth yet tended with tremendous love. Avoiding the common traps of true crime, the striking production asks audiences to consider the human beings before the headlines, deconstructing a strange little story beyond the familiar box it’s been forced into.
Take, for starters, the opening summary superimposed onscreen: “In 2014, Susan and Christopher Edwards were convicted of murder and sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in prison. To this day they maintain their innocence.”
In the annals of history, the first sentence is the beginning and end of things. But what “Landscapers” presupposes, as hinted by the delayed reveal of the second sentence, is what if it wasn’t? Director Will Sharpe and writer/creator Ed Sinclair address the joint statement’s central implication — whether Susan (Olivia Colman) and Christopher (David Thewlis) were wrongly convicted — and invite audiences to choose their own answer by the end of the entrancing, cheeky, and even heartrending four-hour series. But “Landscapers” isn’t concerned with who did it (they did) or courtroom drama (there isn’t any); instead, it observes its criminal couple with a passion typically reserved for great romance, while questioning whether an idealistic interpretation of two killers is ever appropriate, or if the only fitting perspective is one as coldly presupposing as what the courts and cops rely on to make sense of senseless acts.
Picking up 15 years after the deaths of William and Patricia Wycherley (Susan’s parents), the premiere finds Mr. and Mrs. Edwards holed up in France with little money and fewer friends. Christopher struggles to land a job (his French isn’t exactly magnifique), but that doesn’t stop Susan from acting like everything is A-OK. She’s a happy homemaker, waiting for her husband to return with her ear to the door and proudly teasing a tuna sandwich “on normal bread!” But she’s in the dark about their finances (by choice, it seems), and unwilling to accept how dire their straits have become. Carrying the sole responsibility for their safety puts pressure on Christopher, and pressure often leads to poor choices.
Between the couple’s baffling decision-making and the portrayal of (most) police as barely capable buffoons, “Landscapers” could’ve been a black comedy. But Sharpe and Sinclair’s chosen framework is even broader, driven by their real subjects and friendly to their intended audience: Susan and Christopher are massive film buffs. Their depleted bank account is driven further into the red whenever Susan wanders into her favorite memorabilia shop — breaking her promise not to buy anything the second a vintage “High Noon” poster pops up — and Christopher receives regular letters from none other than Gérard Depardieu (a relationship explained in the series’ second half).
Susan often sees herself as the lead of her own picture show, whether she’s picking out a pastry or remembering her first date, and Sharpe routinely recasts the characters as classic western cowboys or even actors in their own story. Sometimes, it’s a fantasy; Susan, who Christopher repeatedly describes as “fragile,” uses movies to escape reality, and often carries reality into her favorite films as the only way to process what’s happening.
But other times, it isn’t up to Susan. When being interrogated by the police — led by Detective Emma Lansing (Kate O’Flynn), who sports an affable relentlessness amid her bumbling, brutish colleagues — she and Christopher will walk from stage to stage, set to set, either led by their own voice or Emma’s. Rooms are cast in vivid green and red lights; characters look directly into the camera and speak to the audience as if we have any choice but to follow along; crew members pop up in tracking shots. “Landscapers” isn’t just a TV show about people who love movies that doubles as an homage to the classics; it’s a moving picture that knows when the pictures are moving — choosing when to let viewers get lost in movie magic and when to flip on the lights, exposing the hard truths that can’t be ignored.
One particularly effective choice is ending each episode with a recap built from actual news footage. No matter how lost you get in Susan and Christopher’s love story, the familiar framing from real reporters helps you step back outside the show’s subjective portrayal. (There aren’t enough superlatives to properly acclaim Thewlis and Colman, who somehow smash through every fourth-wall break without losing the tether to their characters.) The juxtaposition of the preceding episode and its closing credits also forces you to recognize the significant impact of framing in general, whether it’s done by the police, the media, or a filmmaker. The HBO series is a romance, where both halves of the lead couple vow to protect each other at all costs and then do exactly that, no matter how difficult. The reported story is simpler: Susan and Christopher just needed money, and killing her parents was the quickest way to get it.
“Landscapers” proves both sides can be true, even if the justice system only has room for one. “In movies, there are the good guys and there are the bad guys, and I think we have to accept that for most people we will always be the bad guys,” Chris says at one point. “But we love each other, Susan, and no one can take that away from us.” Rather than trying to right a wrong or exploit a painful story for passive entertainment (as so many true crime series do), HBO’s four-part romance lets the mystery be while honoring the possibility that these two people did what they did out of love. The courts, cops, and world at large may have taken that story away from them — and them away from each other — but “Landscapers” gives it back via their favorite form: cinema.
“Landscapers” premieres Monday, December 6 at 9 p.m. on HBO. New episodes of the four-part limited series will air each Monday.