See review: Apple’s answer to HBO’s Game of Thrones suffers from myopic storytelling, world-building
The first three episodes of See lack the rich world-building, character-focused storytelling or vision to make it great like Game of Thrones.
Note: This is a review of the first three episodes of See, which are available to stream on Apple TV Plus on 1 November. New episodes will continue to roll out weekly, every Friday.
Earlier this year, a Daily Cartoon by Joe Dator in The New Yorker wondered if our society had grown dystopian enough to move books like 1984, The Handmaid's Tale or even The Hunger Games from fiction to nonfiction sections in the library.
Considering how we are being surveilled by big internet companies, how women's bodies have become political battlegrounds and how our entertainment is becoming more voyeuristic, the plots in these dystopian novels are starting to feel more and more familiar. They were supposed to be cautionary tales about the future, but the consequences of past choices have turned them into our current reality.
In the Apple TV Plus series See, our present-day behaviour has had some ugly consequences: a virus has killed off most of humanity while the rest have been rendered blind. These survivors have reverted to tribal communities in a pre-industrial society. The show focuses its story on one such tribe called the Alkenny and their leader, Baba Voss (Jason Momoa), who had a troubled past before the tribal elder and seer Paris (Alfre Woodard) took him in. Baba Voss can't have children and has no heirs. Conveniently, one day, a pregnant woman named Maghra (Hera Hilmar) — with a possible dark past of her own (do bear with us: there's a few of those) — walks into their village and Voss takes her as his wife. When she gives birth to twins with the fabled ability of sight, a maniacal monarch named Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks) dispatches her best warriors, the Witchfinders, to have them killed. So, Baba Voss must protect his children and his tribe from those that deem sight to be heresy.
In a world-gone-blind, humanity is thrown into the darkness together, and tries to survive by consulting their other senses. Though they forget all their petty racial and gender differences, there will always be room for fresh human biases — in this case, eyesight. It sure sounds like a great post-apocalyptic premise. Its production, ambitions and incestual fixations are at par with Game of Thrones. Yet, it lacks the rich world-building, character-focused storytelling or vision to make it great.
The show comes alive when creator and writer Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) has to work with the restraints of these extraordinary circumstances of a world-gone-blind. There's a fight sequence early in the pilot where Baba Voss and the Alkenny warriors use some sort of scented war paint to recognise each other from their enemies. Later in the same episode, he leads his tribe, including his wife and newborn twins, across a shambly hanging bridge in a hypertense scene. Furthermore, they're able to stay hidden in the open in front of their enemies if they don't make any noise. These sightless trials are not only thrillingly staged but add a sense of authenticity to the blind civilisation of See.
Like A Quiet Place and Bird Box, the sensory deprivation trope becomes a conduit for parental anxiety in See’s hostile world. While the films benefit from their minimalism and feature length, the show suffers from a few illogical turns as we see more and more of the world in each episode. Everyone has been communicating with bead strings for so long that they have forgotten the written word and almost all of human knowledge gained before the apocalypse. Though they can't see the sun, they feel it but they have even forgotten its name and purpose — and worship it as "God Flame." Yet somehow, the twins regain the ability to read books and understand pretty complex scientific concepts all by themselves without any help whatsoever. Also, why does Queen Kane need such grisly executions of dissenters when literally no one can see how grisly they are?
The narrative is unevenly distributed among a talented ensemble cast, but it’s hard to be emotionally invested in any of these characters. Momoa demonstrates a great capacity for physical roles as always but you wish someone wrote him a role which laid equal emphasis on emotional depth and muscular circumference. Woodard does her best with what she's given and it often feels like Paris is conveying her own tough wisdom with an authoritative whisper. Hilmar's eyes communicate an emotional intelligence and she keeps us tethered to the world of See every moment she’s onscreen. Hoeks cocoons herself in her role as Queen Kane, embracing all the inscrutable and often over-the-top aspects of her villainy, with Christian Camargo playing an able henchman.
Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, I Am Legend) brings his post-apocalyptic cinema expertise to See's return-to-nature premise. But even all the gorgeous landscape visuals of British Columbia become nothing more than a distraction from how emotionally detached the series is from its characters. So, this handicaps the show from effectively delivering its big cautionary lessons, instead purveying an air of faux environmentalism.
In the first three episodes, See becomes something you endure rather than something that inspires. But here's hoping the showrunners take it to more exciting places in the upcoming episodes and the (already renewed) second season.
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