I have a very simple philosophy when it comes to genres. Great dramas should make you feel a little more. Great comedies should make you feel a little better. And great thrillers should make you feel a little worse.
For me, films like “The Parallax View,” “Chinatown” and “Children of Men” – to name but three classics off the top of my head – are quintessential examples of thrillers that send you out of the cinema feeling distinctly worse about the world and your fellow man. They’re the audiovisual equivalent of “the marshmallow test,” except at the end your two eagerly awaited marshmallows are located on a mousetrap.
This type of film teases redemption before ultimately snatching it away in the most brutal or tragic of ways. David Fincher, of course, has practically made a career out of this particular approach, most notably with “Se7en” – which I’m still convinced gave Gwyneth Paltrow the idea for her website (“You think a severed head’s the worst thing you can find in a box? Just wait to see what you can order from Goop.”)
Yet when it comes to television, I’m struggling to recall shows that offer that same kind of life-crushing experience – though Fincher definitely achieved it in the gone-before-its-time Netflix series “Mindhunter.”
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Maybe that’s why one of my favorite TV thrillers of all time remains the 1986 series “Edge of Darkness” (definitely not to be mistaken for the misguided 2010 Mel Gibson movie remake), about a morose British cop investigating the death of his eco-warrior daughter. It’s bleak, but bleak in a strangely life-affirming way – much like HBO’s “Chernobyl” a few years ago.
Too often, though, our topical TV thrillers seem merely content to toy with bleak situations rather than fully embracing them. I’m thinking of series such as “Tehran,” “Homeland,” “Orphan Black,” “Suspicion,” “Westworld” and “Humans,” which take ripped-from-the-headlines or hot-button subjects – the covert Israel-Iran war; counterterrorism in the United States; cloning; identity theft; and the dangers of creating sentient robots – but then care too much about the thrills and spills of the genre over the more cerebral or doom-laden aspects.
In other words, they’re happy to approach the edge of darkness but are then unwilling to proceed any further. I actually really like some of the above-mentioned shows, but just wish they would have committed to the darkness a little more.
Someone who does that is British writer-director Hugo Blick, who has given us really smart, modern-day thrillers like “The Shadow Line,” “The Honorable Woman,” with Maggie Gyllenhaal, and “Black Earth Rising” with Michaela Coel. (Blick changes tack rather dramatically with his new series “The English,” a Western starring Emily Blunt that I’ll be reviewing in coming weeks.)
So, I can pay no greater compliment to British thriller “The Capture” than saying that it often reminded me of “Edge of Darkness” – especially during the particularly brilliant second season. The show first aired in 2019 and the second season aired recently, but I’ve only caught up with it now. Unlike the Israeli election, it does not disappoint.
When Britain received its third prime minister of the year last month – in an apparent bid to prove that bad things do indeed come in threes – Rishi Sunak made the worst-possible start when he delivered a statement that was so wooden, so awkward, it left many questioning whether he was the victim of a deepfake video intended to mortally damage his reputation. Alas, it was all-too-real and just an indication of how low British politics has sunk. Them’s the breaks, to quote one of his predecessors.
Deepfakes are such a familiar problem nowadays that they already have their own Merriam-Webster entry. It defines them as “an image or recording that has been convincingly altered and manipulated to misrepresent someone as doing or saying something that was not actually done or said.”
A cynic might argue that the worst thing about deepfakes is that they offer politicians a potential excuse for bad behavior – but that would just be wishful thinking on our part: Marjorie Taylor Greene and her GOP buddies are all too real, and the only way we’ll be able to tell if they’ve been deepfaked is when they start sounding compassionate.
“Capture” creator Ben Chanan said earlier this year that everything that happens on screen in his series is possible. “Clearly, it’s far-fetched, like any good story is, but it’s not sci-fi,” he explained. “The line we try to tow in the show is everything that happens is technically possible.”
That’s important to remember, because there are some deeply disturbing plotlines here that suggest a future (present?) where we will no longer be able to believe our eyes at what we see on television or online, and where disinformation is king.
As mentioned earlier, the show really hits its stride in season 2 as it encompasses real-world challenges such as whether Western countries should be getting into bed with Chinese high-tech firms in the security sphere. Or, as one character puts it, “Outsourcing U.K. surveillance to China” would be like “handing the British radar contract to Germany in 1939.”
Season 2 starts six months after the events of season 1. Yet even though the first season is the more conventional of the two, it’s still definitely worth six hours of your time, despite the two series’ plotlines working as standalones. What’s clear from the first seconds of the second season is that it’s much more ambitious in scope.
Britain has a staggering 6 million CCTV surveillance cameras, so it’s easy to see why Chanan was so keen initially to make a thriller that asks “What if you can’t believe what you’re actually seeing in this seemingly tamper-proof footage?”
In season 2, he moves on to ask: “What if you can’t believe that the person you’re seeing on your screen is real?” He delivers a truly chilling portrait of a world where we are prone to manipulation beyond the scale of anything we’ve ever seen before.
Appropriately for a show about video manipulation, “The Capture” is adept at offering up plenty of plot manipulations of its own – MacGuffins that slyly shift the narrative from one potential risk to another, leaving you ultimately fearing attack from all sides.
The show is blessed with great British actors wherever you look (plus a few U.S. stars like Ron Perlman, whose character reveals some surprising personal details in season 2). These include star Holliday Grainger as the morally conflicted police detective at the heart of the investigation; Lia Williams as her heart-of-stone superior; and, best of all, Paapa Essiedu (so brilliant in Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You”) as Security Minister Isaac Turner. His opposition to a Chinese facial-recognition technology firm being given a security contract is undermined in spectacular fashion as his political and personal worlds unwind. But remember, things in “The Capture” are never what they seem.
The show also has a surprisingly high number of laugh-out-loud moments, like when a cop deadpans about some video manipulation, “Who’s your suspect, Steven Spielberg?” Or when a website is described as making Buzzfeed look like The Washington Post, or – my favorite, and one for those who know their British television – when the snarky TV presenter of a topical evening news show says “Last person who yelled at me like that is now editing ‘The One Show.’”
For me, great thrillers should sail so close to the wind that they risk starting diplomatic incidents. No, I don’t want China to declare war on the United Kingdom because of “The Capture.” But if you’re making a show that aims to present the full horrors of the modern world, you can’t be afraid of upsetting rogue governments or equally rogue high-tech giants while you’re doing it – though the show leaves you to debate which of these we should be most worried about.
But it’s a false dichotomy: Watch “The Capture” and you’ll realize that you have a lot to be worried about, wherever you look.
“The Capture” is available on Yes London and Yes VOD in Israel, Peacock in the United States and the BBC iPlayer in Britain.