The Serpent

Rating 7.7
Streamer BBC iPlayer
Seasons 1
Episodes 8 x 60 mins

2021’s first big drama tells the grim – yet somehow glamorous – story of the so-called bikini killer, Charles Sobhraj, who murdered at least 12 backpackers and hippies in the 1960s and 1970s in Southeast Asia. But he didn’t act alone, having a partner in crime who was cool-as-a-cucumber Marie-Andrée Leclerc.

Tahar Rahim and Jenna Coleman take on the delinquent duo in this eight-part BBC series, where true crime gets sexed up with traffic cone sized joints, puffed up hair and flares as wide as your eyes will be.

In the series, Sobhraj is the stereotypical psychopath – a smooth-talking sultry type, earning a nickname of The Serpent for beingso good at slipping away from his prosecutors. That is, until Herman Knippenberg comes along. The Dutch consular official becomes obsessed with the disappearance of a young couple, and determines to find out what happened to them.

This set up is a recipe for great TV, and in a lot of ways, it delivers a tasty, if unnerving, treat. The vivacious visuals and atmospheric elements are superb, but for a while, that’s all there is. The series is slow off the mark, and the frequent changes in location don’t match the languid pace of events. But after the first couple of episodes of who’s who and what’s what, it picks up, and we hurry along after Herman, ready to catch the bad guy.

The Independent’s Ed Cumming says this series is “just the thing to perk you up,” with “no shortage of expensive foreign shoots and period detail.” However he admits, “it’s Herman’s storyline that’s the more interesting of the two.” Rebecca Nicholson in The Guardian agrees the show is “excellent at conjuring up an atmosphere,” but says this is “sometimes at the cost of the story… It looks the part, and pulls the right strings, but, in the end, it left me a little cold.” In The Times, Hugo Rifkind agrees, saying “I worry it might all be a bit too glam.”

What’s really wild is that Sobhraj is still alive and sitting in a Nepalese jail, and no doubt with his ego, he’s fairly chuffed with Rahim’s Adonis-like portrayal. That’s an uneasy thought to leave you with…

First shown January 2021. You can watch the trailer by pressing play on the show image, or by clicking here.

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