Netflix’s “Keep Breathing” can’t decide what type of show it wants to be. On its face, it’s a typical survival adventure, in which Melissa Barrera plays Liv, an unhappy lawyer who must fight to stay alive after her chartered plane crashes in the wilderness. The six-part series provides plenty of person-vs-nature drama: Liv forages for food, has an encounter with a bear, and figures out how to make fire.
A lot of this drama is compelling—her diving to recover supplies had me holding my breath too. Plus, the show does a great job of dramatizing the particular horror of being lost in the woods, the madness of walking in circles, the fear of never finding a way out. But sometimes Liv’s solutions are overly complicated. She flashes back to her time as a girl scout, remembering how to fashion a compass. Which, I suppose we all have some random tidbits of knowledge to draw upon in extreme situations. But she does that before remembering the sun sets in the West and rises in the East—a much lower-tech mechanism that’s more plausible (and that works).
The show also loses suspense by overlaying its wilderness drama with montages that reveal truths about nature and humans’ place within it. But these truths are hardly revelatory—think realizing you need to boil water after seeing a bunch of animals peeing in lakes. It’s more silly than insightful, making how the show reveals Liv’s thought process unintentionally funny.
“Keep Breathing” also folds in a psychological thriller with flashbacks to Liv’s past, revealing a long history of emotional wounds, both given and received. The main cause of Liv’s trauma appears to be her manic, artistic mother who charms and neglects her daughter before abandoning her. Some tough conversations with her father follow, leaving Liv unwilling to connect with others, perhaps particularly when they offer real companionship.
The show’s central conceit, that for some it is hard to ‘keep breathing,’ carries some weight. The combination of physiological study and survival drama also makes sense—with no one else to talk to, it’s natural to take a hard look at yourself. And Liv does reach some revelations: that she was not to blame for her mother’s actions, but she is responsible for her own; that love is valuable even when it can hurt; that her father was imperfect; that so is she.
But “Keep Breathing” does its heroine a disservice by tying her quest to an unplanned pregnancy. Her reason to keep fighting to survive is because of a fetus inside her. At particularly hard moments, she even pulls out the ultrasound and stares at it. It’s cliché and frustrating. Why can’t she want to live for herself? To honor her father? To achieve? To love herself, her friends, and perhaps her partner too? Women are more than uteruses, waiting to be fulfilled by a baby. That career-driven Liv would be so completely upended—taking her first and extremely ill-fated vacation because of a pregnancy—seems both easy and unrealistic. Let her be more complicated than that.
Indeed “Keep Breathing” shies away from the complication it sets up. Melissa Barrera is Mexican-born and arguably broke into US stardom via Latinx productions like “Vida” and “In the Heights.” Her Liv is also Latina, although we don’t see much more than the fact of her identity. Yes, Liv and both her parents speak Spanish but how exactly little Liv learned the language with parents who primarily speak English is unclear. When who speaks what and how well is so political in our community that this shortcut feels like a betrayal. Not to mention, "Keep Breathing" doesn’t so much as dip into Liv’s feeling about being one of the few Latinas in a competitive New York law firm or how she was treated by her largely white girl scout troop. It all goes unexamined.
Which is a shame. Barrera has proven she can handle more nuanced work than “Keep Breathing” gives her, despite her almost always being in the frame. In this production, she toggles easily between charming and standoffish, giving Liv a compelling humanity not entirely in the script. Barrera also excels at the body adventure aspect of the show, building upon the physicality she displayed in “Scream.”
But this is where “Keep Breathing” truly fails her and its audience. The final third of the show devolves into body punishment as Liv experiences a series of increasingly severe injuries. After leaving her mostly intact for the first two acts, the story's insistence on punishing Liv at the end borders on misogyny. All the physiological growth, lessons about survival, and even broader connections to the cosmos fall to the side in favor of watching Liv become ever more battered. There's no joy or broader point to it. It's simply the spectacle of destroying a powerful woman’s body.
When the finale portrays Liv taking one last breath, it's simultaneously inevitable, overdue, and preposterous, which is particularly frustrating for a show with so many good elements. It's too bad that “Keep Breathing” can't figure out how to put them all together.
Whole season screened for review. Premieres on Netflix today, July 27th.