I’ve long joked that Apple TV+ is a streaming service solely marketed to TV critics: With its enormous budgets, ambitious briefs, and A-list casts, the streamer has a stunningly high batting average and (with a few exceptions, like “Ted Lasso” or “Severance”) hardly ever break through into the pop culture mainstream. Each of its properties has the confidence of knowing it’s a loss leader—it’s not meant to be watched, it’s meant to be talked about.
“Shantaram,” the massive new series on the service, is quintessential Apple TV+ fare. At twelve hour-long episodes (for its first season alone), it’s a lot to get through, and more than a little bloated as a result. But in adapting Gregory David Roberts’ acclaimed 2003 novel to the screen, showrunner Steve Lightfoot (“Hannibal,” “The Punisher”) has crafted a show that captures the spirit of its source material, albeit in a slightly stretched-out package.
Loosely based on Roberts’ own life (though with marked embellishments, even in the novel), “Shantaram” opens in 1980 with a daring prison escape by Dale Conti (Charlie Hunnam), a junkie and bank robber so desperate to flee Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison he does it in broad daylight. We quickly learn that, for all his crimes, he’s not such a bad guy: He’s a working-class bloke who had a promising future as a paramedic, undone by desperation and heroin. In flashbacks that open most episodes, we see more of his misdeeds, including a botched robbery that led to the shooting of a police officer. He’s got a lot to live down, and a lot to make up for.
Turns out, his best shot to do that is in the Indian capital of Bombay (what we now call Mumbai), where a false passport under the name of Lindsay Ford takes him. A mugging and some chance meetings later, he finds himself in the shantytown of Sagar Wada, where lower-caste Indians eke out a living among cholera outbreaks and destitute conditions. But amid the peeling paint of buses and the rampant corruption of the Bombay police, he finds a sense of belonging—especially once his new best friend/guide Prabhu (a charming Shubham Saraf) convinces him to open a clinic to aid the sick there.
But for all of Lindsay’s (Lin to most, “Linbaba” to Prabhu) desire to start anew in this exotic new place, his past—and his unique set of skills—catch up with him. Almost immediately, he finds himself in the good graces of Abdul Khader Khan (Alexander Siddig, delightfully two-faced), an Afghan mafia don who sees Lin as a useful resource to maintain a foothold in the area. He also comes across a number of other ex-pats who live in Bombay for their own reasons, from heroin addict/sex worker Lisa (Elektra Kilbey) to the mysterious Karla (Antonia Desplat), a Swiss-American immigrant who seems to have her fingers in virtually every pie Lin comes in contact with. Still, with every new deal with the devil to keep his community alive (and himself out of trouble), Lin learns firsthand the delicate balance it takes to live and survive in this place.
Much like the busy markets and packed streets of Bombay (here, Thailand and Melbourne play the part, after COVID cases made India unsafe to shoot), “Shantaram” is packed to the gills with characters, subplots, and interweaving, dense palace intrigue. It’s a lot to take in, especially as you get your head around the sheer number of players Lightfoot et al. ask you to invest in. It can sometimes take half the season before you really zero in on a character’s name, or why you should care about them. Granted, it helps to sell the urban sprawl of its handsomely staged setting, and it all coalesces in a largely cohesive climax in its final three episodes. But until then, expect to take notes.
It helps, fortunately, that you always feel in good hands, and “Shantaram” keeps itself afloat from moment to moment by its cast and presentation. Hunnam, as always, makes for a winsome lead, especially when he’s on a journey of redemption. He’s often wasted as a movie-star leading man (see: “Pacific Rim,” much as I enjoy it, and “Papillon”), but he’s got the quiet sophistication and rugged vulnerability to inject a lot of depth into his wounded TV heroes.
Lin’s not too far removed from Jax, the character Hunnam played on “Sons of Anarchy”—a lost boy who can take care of himself but hardly ever knows which way his compass is pointing. Here, he wants to make good, but knows the sins of the past will never truly escape him. Even as the show’s big hero, he recognizes late in the season that his altruism and hero-of-the-people status is at least partially rooted in selfishness: "I wanted to pay my debt so I could leave."
And blissfully, “Shantaram” is rich enough in detail that it can sustain itself even when it turns its camera away from Hunnam’s ruggedly handsome face. Siddig has long been a world-class actor in search of the kinds of meaty roles that merit his talents, but he purrs with calculating piety as Khader Khan—a dangerous man who’s convinced himself he’s a savior to the very people he wishes to manipulate. Desplat’s Karla is also a strong presence, with the challenging task of serving multiple masters (femme fatale, Lin’s love interest, double-crossing schemer) over the course of the season. And Fayssal Bazzi cuts a striking figure as Khan henchman Abdullah, who becomes one of Lin’s many allies as the show progresses.
Most notable, though, is Saraf’s delightful, innocent Prabhu, the man most removed from the moral compromises that seem to plague those around him. He’s the show’s moral compass, and as such you’ll spend the entire show biting your fist in the hopes that nothing bad will happen to him.
If there are any criticisms to levy at “Shantaram,” it’s that it’s exceedingly long, dense to a fault, and occasionally veers too close to fetishizing its Indian backdrop. Its moralistic tale of redemption is hardly subtle, especially when such a simple message is stretched to half a day’s worth of television. But just like Lin, it’s easy to get lost in the sprawl of Bombay and its vibrant international cast of characters, and wonder just what roads his salvation may take him down in future seasons.
All twelve episodes of its first season screened for review.