Hulu’s “Hard Sun,” starring Jim Sturgess and Agyness Deyn (so great in Terence Davies’ “Sunset Song”), which has already played in the U.K. but gets its stateside debut this Wednesday on the streaming service, is an ugly cop show with a clever high-concept. How long you’re patient with its darker themes and unlikable characters will depend on how clever you think that concept actually is. I ran out of patience with the violence, particularly against women, and lack of reason to care about anything that was happening after two episodes.
“Hard Sun” opens with one of the most disturbingly violent scenes I’ve seen on television, and I’ve been doing this as a critic for twenty years (and longer as a fan). A woman played by Deyn is viciously beaten in a fight in her own kitchen by what looks like a sociopathic lunatic. He punches and kicks her, pouring gasoline on her body before he turns on the gas and, in slo-mo, lights the place on fire. She stumbles out just before it explodes … roll credits! It’s a slimy, icky way to start a show and I’m not sure creator Neil Cross, who has mined the dark side of humanity well in his award-winning “Luther,” ever recovers from the tone it sets.
Did I mention that the attacker in the opening scene is the woman’s son? Of course, he’s a bit mentally unstable, but she survives the assault. We learn that she’s a DI Officer named Elaine Renko, and she’s now partnered with DCI Officer Charlie Hicks, played by Sturgess. Of course, he’s a Cop on the Edge, the kind of guy who doesn’t need or trust a new partner, but the two are forced to work together on the investigation of a suspicious suicide—which we see in graphic detail, including a body hurling through the air and splattering on a kid’s backpack. Oh, and, of course, Renko is working behind the scenes to try and prove that Hicks is corrupt.
The investigation of the suicide leads to the real high concept of “Hard Sun.” Believe it or not, this show was inspired by David Bowie’s banger “Five Years,” which imagines a world united when it finds out it only has a half-decade left. The title refers to a report that the officers find that reveals an extinction level event is only five years away. What would a pre-apocalyptic world be like? How would it change human behavior? Criminal investigations? Of course, most people wouldn’t allow themselves to believe it—and the government would do a good job branding it #fakenews—but what would the people do who knew it was accurate?
Apparently, they’d do a lot of ugly things. The first episode of “Hard Sun” ends with an all-out brawl between Sturgess and Deyn, and the second episode climaxes with Deyn having a shotgun pointed at her face. There's a gun used to threaten a pregnant woman in between. I’m not one to be overly sensitive to issues like violence against women, but one doesn’t really have to be to feel a little grossed out by “Hard Sun.” It’s a show that’s constantly trying to push buttons but mistakes “ugly” for “intense.” They’re not the same thing. Not even close. Deyn is actually good here, but Sturgess can’t sell the tough cop thing to save his life. He’s just miscast. Worst of all, “Hard Sun” is just so generic beneath its high concept. Of course, he might be corrupt. Of course, she has a violent past that includes a rape. It’s almost an experiment in grafting as many clichés from this subgenre onto an admittedly original concept as possible until the whole thing, well, overheats.