Seven Seconds review – provocative Netflix drama series takes too much time

Excellent performances and a timely premise can’t save the show from The Killing remake director Veena Sud from feeling like a slog

Seven seconds is how long it takes for Pete Jablonski (Beau Knapp), a young white police officer, to run over Brenton Butler, a black teenager on a bicycle, in a New Jersey park. And it’s also the name of the new Netflix series from Veena Sud, the showrunner best known for adapting The Killing from the original Danish series for the American market. The accident happens in the blink of an eye, but after that everything else moves at a much slower pace. A provocative, timely premise and some solid-to-wonderful actors (Regina King!) can’t rescue a show that feels like it’s already been done, and done, and done.

In the opening scene, after his car spins off the road in snow and he discovers a child’s bicycle crushed under the tires, Jablonski calls his buddies from work: they’re all cops in Jersey City, and they’re not going to let one of their own go down for killing a young black man. When Pete wavers at his friends’ plot to frame an elderly white vagrant for the crime, they tell him that it’s bigger than him: “They are going to fuck you for Ferguson, Chicago, Baltimore … I want you to think about what kind of father you’d be behind bars.”

Brenton is the son of a middle-aged, middle-class black couple: his mother Latrice (King) works at a private school full of snotty white kids; his father Isaiah sweeps blood at a slaughterhouse. They go to church, they’re waiting for the return of Brenton’s uncle from active duty in the Middle East. No one’s too clear on what Brenton was doing in the park that morning – “probably a banger”, a white detective says, because he’s a racist – but that doesn’t matter. Latrice holds a vigil by Brenton’s bedside in the intensive care unit while Isaiah goes back to work and struggles to express his feelings.

And then there’s KJ Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey). She’s the assistant district attorney, a beautiful young black woman with a drinking problem and an evident determination to get to the bottom of the case if she doesn’t get caught for a DWI first. Harper’s drinking – we’re introduced to her as she drinks in a bar prior to going into court and messing up her evidence – is one of the first flags that this show is probably not going to be an incisive examination of race and police brutality. There’s just no reason for alcoholism to be one of Harper’s key character traits except, perhaps, because lawyers on shows like this so often drink too much. Perhaps her backstory will eventually reveal the root cause, but in the first two episodes it just feels gratuitous, a waste of time for a perfectly interesting protagonist.

“Fish” (Joe Rinadi), the detective assigned to the case, has a similar lack of complexity: besides being racist, the early episodes reveal that he has a lot of dogs. That’s just who he is: a dog man. Will these two broken people solve the case before the Butler family is cheated of justice? Maybe. Will they make out in a spate of hate-fueled passion? It seems inevitable. Two hardscrabble crime solvers of the opposite sex are about as predictable as a gun in the first act of a Chekhov play.

Meanwhile, Jablonski’s struggle is expressed through tension with his wife, whose character traits are “pregnant” and “loud” and “a white lady from from New Jersey”. They argue in a car, and in the room that he’s preparing for the baby, even though he’s stricken with guilt over killing someone else’s son. She doesn’t understand why he’s being so emotional and not paying attention to her! It’s a great audition for the role of a wife on The Sopranos. He meets up with his police friends again, in a faded diner, of course because that’s where white people meet in shows like this, even though it’s 2017 and in real life these guys would definitely hang out at Dave & Buster’s.

In 2016, HBO’s The Night Of took on some similar themes – a young man of colour framed for the murder of a young white woman, and the people who worked to get him justice. That series had truly preposterous elements – the affair between the accused and one of his lawyers – but it moved at a clip and avoided the worst cliches of crime series. Alas, the early episodes of Seven Seconds show little such promise, with its meandering pace and flat characters. It is a slog, at least to start with, and that might make it hard to find out if it ever gets better.


Jean Hannah Edelstein

The GuardianTramp

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