The Essex Serpent is a strange show. The Apple TV+ series’ title and logline suggest that it’s about a small English town that becomes the target of a mythical sea creature, and that element is certainly a part of The Essex Serpent. The series’ eerie opening scene even goes so far as to suggest that it’ll be its main focus. However, when it comes to mythical monsters and creepy deaths, The Essex Serpent frequently comes up short.
That’s because, contrary to what The Essex Serpent’s title suggests, it is not a Victorian-era monster/mystery show. Instead, the series has more in common with a torrid romance like Pride & Prejudice than it does, say, Creature from the Black Lagoon. As a result, The Essex Serpent is practically brimming with shots of several very esteemed actors walking contemplatively through fog-covered English marshes while thinking about the feelings of longing and romance that are tearing them apart inside.
The series is also replete with gorgeous costumes and some of the most visually splendid cinematography you’ll see from any TV show this year, which only heightens the series’ gothic mood and stories of tortured romance. All that is to say that, depending on where your interests lie, The Essex Serpent may or may not have exactly what you’re looking for.
Based on Sarah Perry’s 2016 novel of the same name, The Essex Serpent follows Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), a London housewife who is freed from her abusive and suffocating marriage when her husband dies. Finally able to live her life how she wants, Cora finds herself drawn to the rumors of a sea creature that has allegedly begun terrorizing the citizens of a rural English town.
Convinced that the creature may be one that was thought to be extinct, Cora seizes the opportunity to indulge in her love of science and natural history, and moves herself, her son, and her maid, Martha (Hayley Squires), to Essex in the hopes of discovering the truth behind the town’s mythical serpent. Once there, Cora crosses paths with Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), a married small-town pastor whom she quickly forms a surprisingly strong bond with.
Their relationship is complicated not only by Will’s loving relationship with his wife, Stella (Clémence Poésy), but also by the fact that many of the town’s superstitious citizens are convinced that Cora’s arrival may have something to do with the recent disappearances of several of their neighbors. Those two conflicts put a considerable strain on Will and Cora’s bond, which is also hindered by Cora’s lingering trauma from her abusive marriage.
Cora and Will’s relationship manages to survive the clutter of The Essex Serpent’s numerous subplots and conflicts, and that’s largely thanks to the actors who play them. Even when he’s playing absolute cads, Hiddleston has an innate ability to bring a level of sincerity to his characters. That talent makes him uniquely well-suited for the role of Will Ransome, a preacher whose romantic longing is clear even underneath his humble, soft-spoken demeanor. Danes, meanwhile, has always been a courageously emotive performer, and she wears Cora’s emotions on her face for the whole world to see, which makes her a compelling counter to Hiddleston’s Will.
Frank Dillane also shines as Dr. Luke Garrett, an arrogant and talented surgeon who becomes attracted to Dane’s Cora early on in The Essex Serpent‘s first episode. Dillane’s loud, confident performance makes Luke the perfect third point in The Essex Serpent’s central love triangle. The show’s scripts also manage to expose Luke’s various flaws and strengths without ever trying to take the easy route by making him either too arrogant or too kind. Ultimately, he ends up emerging as the most multifaceted of the show’s three leads.
The strength of The Essex Serpent’s central characterizations does not, however, extend into the show’s plotting or attempts at thematic profundity. Many of the series’ six episodes end up feeling scattered and languid in a way that makes staying invested in its ongoing storylines exceedingly difficult at times. Although its attempts at telling a story about how painful a process moving on can be are admirable, the series ends up throwing too many ideas at the wall for its thematic intentions to crystallize as satisfyingly as they should.
From Luke’s controversial desire to advance surgical studies to Martha’s obsession with socialism, The Essex Serpent is filled with subplots about how difficult it can be for people to accept change. However, that theme is also present in Cora’s inability to move on from her husband’s abuse and in the way so many of Essex’s townspeople choose to propagate outdated beliefs when faced with something they don’t understand. It’s when The Essex Serpent is focused on those latter storylines that it is most involving, but the series frequently abandons its core conflicts in order to focus on superfluous subplots that are too loosely connected to feel at all meaningful.
In other words, The Essex Serpent is a bit of a mixed bag. The series’ languid pace and unfocused narrative may make it too frustrating of an experience for some viewers, while others may be won over by its gorgeous costumes and mood. Visually, the series is practically unmatched, with director Clio Barnard filling its six episodes with some genuinely breathtaking gothic imagery. The show’s color palette also places a heavy emphasis on blacks and blues, accentuating The Essex Serpent‘s various shadowy rooms and the expansive navy blue sky that spreads out above its characters.
While the series may prove to be something of a litmus test for its viewers’ tastes and interests, The Essex Serpent is also a show that understands some basic fundamentals — namely, that there are few locales more cinematically pleasing than foggy English towns, and no characters better-suited for them than a pair of heartsick romantics.
The first two episodes of The Essex Serpent premiere Friday, May 13 on Apple TV+.