Dramas that emulate real-life terror incidents — they may not be based on those incidents, but damn, they come really close — have a really tricky obstacle to deal with: How do they make their shows entertaining and not make people so anxious and terrified that they hit the STOP button? A new miniseries on BritBox tests that theory out by laying out a terror attack scenario that has happened in real life more than once in recent years.
CROSSFIRE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: A woman swimming in a pool at an island resort. “We think it goes in a straight line, don’t we? Time, I mean.”
The Gist: As Jo (Keeley Hawes) is on a Canary Island resort with her family and two other couples, she’s in her room when she hears shots ring out. The voice over talks about how life ends up revolving around huge moments, when things change so much that you look at time as “before” and “after” the event. What she remembers is that she needed to put on her trainers and she needed to run.
Jo came to the resort with her husband Jason (Lee Ingleby), their son and daughter, and her older daughter Amara (Shalisha James-Davis), from her first marriage. Also along is Abhi (Anneika Rose) and Chinar (Vikash Bhai) with their kids; Chinar tells his wife that people think of them as “Mr. and Mrs. Perfect.” Finally, there’s Ben (Daniel Ryan) and Miriam (Josette Simon). After a dinner where it seemed like the group was getting along famously, they happen upon Jason and Jo having a nasty argument, where Jason calls her a coward.
As the shots ring out, gunmen stalk the pool and start entering the sprawling resort building. The guests who aren’t shot start to scatter; Amara is still caught by the pool, and Abhi is stuck under a table in a random room. Miriam, a general practitioner, is treating a waitress that got shot. Jason returns to the room to look for his son. Jo, whose argument with Jason was about rejoining the police force, goes to the head of security and offers her help. The two of them go around with shotguns and try to evacuate as many people as possible.
Before the shots rang out, Jo was texting sexy messages to someone who wasn’t Jason. When Jo manages to find Abhi, she uses her phone to call Jason and tells her to use her phone to find Amara. That is where Jason finds the texts, and in a flashback to New Year’s Eve 2019, we see further evidence of just who she was texting.
In the meantime, Chinar, who’s in a basement room with two of his sons and Jo’s young son, confronts a young gunman (Pol Sanuy) in order to help the kids escape.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? The White Lotus, only with a lot more gunfire.
Our Take: We felt extraordinarily anxious watching the first episode of the Crossfire, a three-part miniseries written by Louise Doughty and directed by Tessa Hoffe. In a lot of ways, it felt like the show didn’t have a story as much as it was “terror porn,” in a way. We get lots of footage of random sunbathers and swimmers losing their lives at the pool, and then we return to them when someone almost stumbles on a body or Hoffe’s camera surveys the now-quiet scene, corpses and all.
It reminded us of real life attacks on hotels and resorts in recent years, with scenes of dead sunbathers and bodies of people enjoying chilled white wine at a poolside table right before being fatally shot. We’re sure that’s what Doughty had in mind with the show, especially during the first two episodes; she wanted us to feel the same terror that the characters feel as they flee for their lives and/or hide in a spot where they hope the gunmen won’t find them. That real-life anxiety isn’t a recipe for entertainment, though. There’s such a thing as a pulse-pounding thriller, but this oh-so-realistic scenario wasn’t the kind of pulse-quickening stimulus we had in mind.
It didn’t help that we only get to know the main characters via flashbacks. We only get broad strokes about Jo and Jason and their kids, and the only thing we really know is that they’re not getting along. We get even less of a vibe off the other two couples, and by the time the first episode ends, one of the people we’ve met doesn’t make it. But we only got to know that person briefly, and what we know was a particular aspect that wasn’t very flattering. So when that person died, our feelings of loss for that character weren’t there.
We give Doughty credit for giving viewers a chance to put a human face on the gunmen in the second episode, but it’s not particularly clear why they’re doing what they’re doing. The rest of the stories surrounding the people trying to survive, from infidelity to bravery to losing track of loved ones during the escape, felt superfluous when the characters are truly faced with constant decisions that could mean the difference between escaping or getting killed.
Sex and Skin: None. Even the sexting Jo does with the man she’s having an affair with is quite tame.
Parting Shot: As the young gunman approaches Amara, Jo brazenly calls out to him, holding the shotgun. We see a shot ring out of the barrel of the young gunman’s weapon.
Sleeper Star: We’ll give this to Josette Simon as Miriam, whose character exhibits a lot of grace under pressure to help people out.
Most Pilot-y Line: Jason calls the phone of the person who is having an affair with Jo. “I hope they fucking shoot you,” he says into that person’s voice mail. We guess he’s stopped worrying about the safety of his children…?
Our Call: SKIP IT. Crossfire starts off giving its viewers some real-life anxiety and then starts to squander that tension almost immediately. To be honest, it’s bad enough we see stories like this on the news; we don’t need to see it as entertainment at this point.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.