It's excruciating and exhilarating.
There is a lot to like that's buried in Netflix’s new drama, “Seven Seconds,” but it suffers so greatly from what has been called Netflix Bloat that it’s hard to get to the quality underneath. It’s a show that is so full of pregnant pauses and self-important segues that it becomes frustrating in the way it wallows in its darkness. Of course, one might argue that a story about grief and injustice should take its time, and I’m certainly not advocating for quick-cut melodrama, but it’s impossible to shake the feeling that “Seven Seconds” could have been a 5- or 6-episode season instead of the 10 dropping on you this Friday. Although, you could do worse on what is likely a rainy/snowy February weekend than locking yourself in with this well-acted melodrama about a criminal cover-up and a mother’s pain.
Part of my reservation and frustration is that I so wish I could recommend “Seven Seconds” wholeheartedly because of how much I admire the talent of star Regina King. The fact that she was never nominated for an Emmy for her brilliant work on “Southland” is a travesty, only slightly lessened by the fact that the Academy simply couldn’t ignore her on “American Crime”—she was nominated for all three seasons and won for two. She’s one of those actresses who qualifies as “always good, often great,” and I’d use those words to describe her work here as Latrice Butler, a grieving mother whose son Brenton is hit by a car in the opening scenes of “Seven Seconds.”
Hit and runs happen every day in America, but the one that happens to Latrice’s son in “Seven Seconds” becomes a national story because the car happens to be driven by a white cop. In the opening scenes of the show, Peter Jablonski (Beau Knapp) is rushing to get to the hospital to see his pregnant wife because he’s worried they’re going to lose the baby after she has some medical issues. He’s panicked and speeding. And he hits Brenton on his bicycle. Jablonski is a cop, and he’s recently become a part of a team of narcotics officers led by the aggressive Mike Diangelo (David Lyons). Instead of calling 911, Jablonski calls his new superior officer, and Diangelo quickly tries to cover it up. They frame Brenton as a ‘banger’ who should have been in school, and even try to pin the hit and run on a local drunk.
An Assistant DA named KJ Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey) gets the case, and she senses something’s not right. Digging a little deeper with another wise-cracking Jersey City cop named ‘Fish’ Rinaldi (Michael Mosley), they uncover the truth, and race relations in Jersey City explode. Meanwhile, Latrice’s family is fractured when her religious husband (Russell Hornsby) and military brother-in-law Seth (Zackary Momoh) fight through their grief in different ways. Seth has a gang background and doesn’t embrace religion like Brenton’s family. Oh, and to add to the drama, KJ is an alcoholic, and Jablonski has a new baby at home when his life spirals out of control.
Clearly, there’s a lot of dramatic material in “Seven Seconds,” but it often feels like an exercise in miserablism. Creator Veena Sud and her team wallow and linger in pain, whether it’s extended scenes of Latrice watching over her son in the hospital or the state of anxious panic in which Jablonski lives after the accident. But it often seems hollow, despite great work by King and a solid turn from Knapp. In too many instances, “Seven Seconds” feels caught between melodrama and cultural commentary, and it’s not quite enough of either. Diangelo and his gang of drug-planting criminals feel like caricatures out of a “Shades of Blue” spin-off, and then the show whips back to the Butler home, where King grounds it in something more relatable. It’s a show that’s all over the map tonally, sometimes feeling like an extended version of “Mystic River,” but there’s a reason that was a movie and not a series—it’s a difficult energy to maintain for ten hours.
However, there are performances that often elevate “Seven Seconds” above its flaws. Ashitey has a fascinating character in that KJ is the black sheep of the family, and she captures well the kind of person who flees from conflict or stress into a bottle or a bed. Her scenes with Mosley become the most interesting on the show because they bridge the gap between the melodrama of the Butler/Jablonski homes and the corruption of the police station. They come out more believable (and entertaining) than either extreme. Also, Mosley is quite a TV star in the making—charming and likable in equal measure.
“Seven Seconds” does eventually get interesting narratively, but it’s not until about episode five. Something happens at the end of episode four that really injects some adrenalin into the narrative, but I kept wondering why it took so long to get there. In the old days of network television, there was a sense that shows had to rush to keep an audience for the almighty rating. I’m not saying that’s the way TV should be to support a creator, but the full-season orders at Netflix may be swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction, allowing creators to meander when they could use a sense of urgency. It certainly seems to be happening with their Marvel shows, every single one of which feels bloated and sags at times, and I’ve noticed it in a lot of their dramas too. There’s a solid, more consistent and shorter version of “Seven Seconds” within the 10-episode version premiering this week. It’s up to you if you have the time to find it.
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