WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
A man and a woman have their work cut out for them as they make separate journeys to a mysterious island off the British coast.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
The Third Day is, by turns, a maddening, ambitious, intriguing, meandering, tense, boring, unpredictable, unsatisfying and hypnotic limited series by theatre pioneer Felix Barrett and the creator of the UK version of Utopia, Dennis Kelly. It’s not, by any means, an easy show to recommend to general audiences but there is something here, something that will appeal - to one extent or another - to fans of more adventurous, audacious TV like Twin Peaks: The Return. Not that it’s anywhere near as good as David Lynch and Mark Frost’s surrealist modern-classic, mind you, or anywhere near as weird but it clearly has no real intention to play to mainstream audiences.
And that’s before you get to the "Autumn" live event that was streamed over 24 hours by HBO as a bridge (appropriately) between the "Summer" and "Winter" sections of the show itself by blending the show’s actors with real visitors to the island in this weird hybrid of performance art, narrative and documentary.
The Third Day, for all of its balls-to-the-wall craziness, its experimentation with the very form of serialized storytelling and its clear delight in subverting audience expectations, does actually call to mind at least two other major film and television properties. First, on the more mainstream side of things, the whole thing plays out like Lost, if Lost was squished into 6 episodes rather than 7 seasons and was even more frustrating and uneven.
More obviously, though, the whole thing owes a ton to the classic British horror film, The Wicker Man, or its modern counterpart, Ari Aster’s deranged Midsommar. In terms of both plot (regular Joe finds himself among a small, weird community of pagans) and theme (the clash of modernity vs ancient folk traditions), the similarities are obvious – and no doubt intentionally so. Admittedly, being stretched over six to thirty hours – depending on whether you want to bother with the live event – rather than two, does mean that The Third Day doesn’t capture the same sense of sustained dread and unease of either film but it certainly has its own WTF moments and, when it’s at its best, moments of creepiness.
Fans of either of these movies would probably do well to at least give The Third Day a shot but those who a) hated them b) never heard of them or c) wouldn’t watch them if you paid them, would do very, very well to stay the hell away from it. The show is a total mess and it doesn’t really work but go in with the right frame of mind and it’s at least a very intriguing often compelling failure that is, in its way, more impressive than many "good" series or films. Go in expecting anything even remotely mainstream, though, and it just might be the worst thing you would have seen on the small screen this year – or any year, really.
Take, for example, the way it is divided into two interconnected but tonally quite different halves. They do actually have plenty to do with one another in terms of plot and the second half pays off a lot of the mysteries introduced in the first half while flipping much of what we took for granted on its head but the two halves never quite gel. "Winter" is a much more straightforward and twisty thriller than the mostly surreal, rambling "Summer" and it may well have wider appeal but people who would enjoy it would probably be left utterly bewildered and bored by the first three episodes. On the other hand, those who enjoyed the first half for its Lynchian surreality will probably find the "Winter" portions much less immersive and its ending far too pat and straightforward. Personally, I’m kind of with both groups. The first half was just a bit too meandering and the second half was just a bit too neat and overly plot-heavy. Also, once it stops being so dreamlike (or nightmarish, really) and surreal, the many plot contrivances become increasingly notable and harder to stomach.
Then there’s the matter of the characters. The second half of the series introduces far more rounded and understandable characters in the form of Helen and her kids but at the same time completely upends everything we thought we knew of Sam and some of the other characters in the "Summer" sections. It’s a cute trick and I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the various misdirections and feints but they never quite escape feeling like they’re a bit too cute for their own good and that the whole thing is a bit too quick to sacrifice cohesiveness in favour of having twists for the sake of twists.
At least the islanders themselves are consistently strange and contradictory throughout, though, and if they never quite make sense, that’s pretty much the point. The characters played by the great Emily Watson and the no less great Paddy Considine are particularly interesting and particularly memorable. I could have done with even more of both.
Any misgivings I may have about the show, though, don’t erase its most obvious strengths. The performances are extremely strong throughout from both more recognizable names in the major parts and interesting character actors in supporting roles.
Most of all, though, it’s a total treat for both the eyes and the ears. While clearly a lot of work was done in post-production to create the beautiful but otherworldly look of Osea, you absolutely cannot deny the stunning cinematography by Benjamin Kracun for the summer portions and David Chizallet for the winter. Admittedly, by their nature, the "Summer" scenes lend themselves more to gorgeous camera work than the intentionally gloomy winter scenes but Kracun, especially, blew me away with his artistic, picturesque work who made every frame of the first three episodes a work of art in and of themselves.
It’s also one of the best sounding things I’ve yet come across on any streaming service to date. Interestingly, once again the two halves of the series are handled by different composers but both Dickon Hinchliffe and Cristobal Tapia de Veer create evocative scores with the latter giving the “Summer” sequences a trippy, sometimes playful edge and the former bringing a menacing tinge to the "Winter" sections. More importantly, the sound design is incredible, fully immersing you in the world. If you want to test out the soundstage on your headphones, I could hardly think of a better test subject. The third episode, with its millions of weirdly menacing crickets is a particularly powerful aural experience.
I’m tempted to recommend the series, in fact, just as a sensorial experience.
One final note, as for "Autumn", the series’ ambitious live event, it wasn’t included in the screening pack provided to me by HBO but I did find a five-hour cut of it on HBO’s Facebook page, which I skimmed. Is it necessary to be able to appreciate the actual episodes? Not really. It fills in much more of the mythology of the island and it’s an interesting experiment but you can find recaps online (I read a couple myself) and you can basically watch however much of the event special as you feel like until you’ve gotten the basic gist but there’s actually something to be said for skipping "Autumn" entirely and allowing the radical shift between summer and winter to hit you as hard as it hits the characters. It also adds an extra layer of mystery to the second half, which I personally welcome.
As for that 3-star rating, take it with a grain of salt. This isn’t – as you may have noticed – the sort of series that really allows for any sort of pithy judgement or summation. Good but super flawed is where I land but your mileage may and will vary.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: