We’ve reached a point, with shows like "Watchmen" and "Stranger Things," in which it feels like even the most successful television needs a high-concept hook. But take the four-part mini-series “The Accident,” the latest production from Jack Thorne (“National Treasure,” “Kiri”) premiering on Hulu this week after a successful Channel 4 run last month. It’s a nuanced look at the human need for blame and how people and systems collapse when there are no easy answers. It doesn’t quite come together like its first half promises—some of the courtroom material in the final episode doesn’t ring true to me at all—but it has solid performances throughout, and contains the kind of adult, philosophical questions that we will lose if we lose this kind of dramatic storytelling on television.
“The Accident” takes place in a relatively small Welsh town that is in the middle of a festive walk on an average day. As all of the parents are chatting and fast-walking, a group of teens climb a fence at a major construction site on the edge of town and do what kids do—they run through the nearly-constructed building, spray paint the walls, and then one asks for a cigarette. The adults on the other side of town are stopped in their tracks by a huge explosion. It turns out there were gas canisters stored improperly. And then, as the parents watch the rescue effort, the building collapses, killing all but one of the teens.
How does a group of people survive the unimaginable? Thorne was clearly inspired by major incidents like the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 that killed 72 people. As in that case, human beings have a need to blame someone. The main instigator and only survivor Leona (Jade Croot) happens to be the daughter of Iwan (Mark Lewis Jones), a major proponent of the construction project and the abusive, alcoholic husband of Polly (Sarah Lancashire). Was Leona committing vandalism to get back at her father? Is she to blame for the deaths of her friends?
There are other places to point fingers. We meet Debbie Kethin (Genevieve Barr), whose husband becomes the fall guy for the placement of the gas canisters. And the second lead, after Lancashire’s Polly, is the conflicted Harriet Paulsen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who works for the company behind the construction. Harriet is constantly torn between wanting to do what’s right and save her job. Attorneys, media leaks, in-fighting among the relatives of the survivors—it’s a lot of action for four 45-minute episodes.
Maybe too much. There are only so many heated, emotional exchanges one can take in a three-hour window, and I think there may be a stronger version of “The Accident” that doesn’t feel as rushed as this one. For example, it’s not like I needed a deep courtroom drama, but handling that material in a quick fashion inherently ups the melodrama because we only get the highlights. “The Accident” works best in its minor beats—an acting decision by the great Lancashire or Knudsen—but I was less interested in the revelations and twists of the climax. I wished it could have breathed more overall, allowing these great actors and a truly excellent writer to deepen the characters in a way that made the melodrama of the final episode a bit more refined.
Still, “The Accident” is worth a look, especially for those who have appreciated Thorne’s other work, also on Hulu. It’s been nice to watch the service enrich this section of its catalog, importing some of the better British dramas of the last few years. With so much TV out there, including new streaming players like Apple and Disney, I worry that this is the first kind of programming that gets lost in the clutter. That would be a tragic accident.