Sacred Games is an engaging visual feast set in Mumbai, while Sharp Objects is a slow burn for fans of author Gillian Flynn
Two new series, Sacred Games and Sharp Objects, are retreads of stock crime-thriller plots. But the first succeeds where the latter stumbles, proving that a first-rate cast cannot save you from over-reliance on style over substance.
That said, there is nothing wrong with beautiful staging.
Sacred Games, a Netflix Hindi drama based on Vikram Chandra's celebrated 2006 novel of the same name, is a visual feast from the opening shot: a dog being defenestrated from a block of flats.
And this continues in its colour-saturated tour of Mumbai, which seems to glow in a sort of neon half-light.
The plot engine is a game of cat and mouse between Sartaj (Bollywood megastar Saif Ali Khan), a low-level but honest cop whose personal life is a mess, and a larger-than-life crime boss named Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, also a Bollywood megastar).
Gaitonde warns Sartaj that catastrophe will befall the city in 25 days - and leaves him a trail of cryptic clues so he can stop it. The policeman then stumbles onto a tangled web involving top politicians, terrorists and a Bollywood star.
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The criminal-mastermind-toys-with-cop trick is old hat, but the series injects it with neo-noir flair.
And it anchors it all with a Scorsese-worthy voiceover from Gaitonde, who narrates a spellbinding highlight reel of his childhood and criminal past.
The story is as dense as the book, with diverting meditations on religion, caste, corruption and Mumbai's dark charms that recall crime epics such as The Wire (2002 to 2008) and Narcos (2015 to present) - a non-English-language crime drama whose success Netflix is obviously hoping to replicate here.
Sacred Games is all over the place tonally as well, flitting between hardboiled crime fiction, dark comedy and Bollywood melodrama, and never quite settling on any of these.
Still, the strong narrative through line and charismatic turns by the leads make this engaging mess work somehow. And they propel you over all the plot holes and cliches and straight onto the "next episode" button.
HBO's new prestige drama, Sharp Objects, could have used some of that kinetic energy.
Instead, its story of hard-drinking reporter Camille (Amy Adams) - who returns to the hometown she fled to cover the disappearance and murder of two girls - is often an excruciatingly slow burn.
A whodunit in small-town America and a community suffocating under the weight of suspicion and social conformity - this would feel overly familiar even without the female-led cast directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, which immediately invites comparison with his Emmy-sweeping Big Little Lies (2017).
What Sharp Objects does differently, and well, is re-creating the intimate torture of close but dysfunctional family ties - especially the ones that bind Camille, her drama-queen mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) and her chameleon-like half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen).
But almost everything else lacks subtlety - although the sensual quality of Vallee's direction and impeccably curated soundtrack of eclectic music would have you think otherwise.
Camille is an alcoholic, self-harming wreck - is there anything more on-the-nose in telegraphing inner pain? And the show's big reveals are just as literal-minded.
Vallee's music-video sensibilities and fondness for dreamy flashbacks worked in Big Little Lies because they were evocative counterpoints to a sharp-eyed look at marriage, competitive parenting and domestic abuse.
Here, however, they have devolved into almost a tic and seem rendered mainly in service of mood and style.
Adams has poured heart and soul into Camille though. So fans of the actress - one of the finest of her generation - will want to watch till the end, as will those who like the pulpy plot twists of author Gillian Flynn, who wrote Gone Girl and the 2006 novel of the same name this is based on.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2018, with the headline 'Tackling crime in small town and big city'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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