BBC2 conspiracy thriller Odyssey: “More Poundland than Homeland”

It's perfectly serviceable, undemanding drama but with too much exposition, "glove-puppet plotting" and the strange casting of Anna Friel it's far from the gritty drama it was aiming for, says David Butcher

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A waif-like heroine fighting terrorists. Corruption in high places. Lots of shouting in Arabic. Parts of Odyssey may remind you dimly of Homeland. Its American network NBC probably hoped to create a down-and-dirty version of the Claire Danes thriller, but what we end up with is more Poundland than Homeland.

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Which is fine; we like the odd trip to Poundland. But don’t come to Odyssey expecting deep characters or multi-layered plots. Our heroine is Sgt Odelle Ballard, played by Anna Friel. Of all the parts I expected Friel to play in her career, a special forces US Army sergeant wasn’t one of them. She does a good job but it’s like seeing Keira Knightley play a bouncer – you’re starting at a disadvantage.

So, the premise: Odelle’s elite US army unit are on a mission in Mali when they kill the leader of Al Qaeda. On his laptop, Odelle finds documents showing the terrorist boss received a transfer of $30million from a big US corporation. That’s odd, she thinks, and like any good thriller protagonist, puts the incriminating data on a memory stick, moments before some shadowy US private militia types arrive and take control.

From there on, it’s a familiar tale of conspiracy and cover-up. In case we’re confused, now and then someone will say something on-the-nose like ‘This whole thing is a cover up!’ or ‘They won’t stop until they find me and they kill me!’ That’s an occupational hazard of Odyssey: nothing is left for viewers to piece together; all story dots are visibly joined and then one character will explain to another that they’re joined.

It gets worse for Odelle. She survives a friendly-fire drone strike that kills the rest of her unit, but is forced to go on the run across the desert, while back home she is reported dead. The catch is, she has to pose as a man to pass as a Touareg pilgrim (or something), but even when every inch of her body is covered and you can only see her eyes, Anna Friel does not look like a wizened tribesman, she looks like Anna Friel on a fashion shoot.

There are other plot strands – characters in New York who rumble the cover-up – but nothing that you would for a moment mistake for realism. It’s full of what you might call glove-puppet plotting: characters pop up to do a job – evil corporate boss, wild-eyed hacker and so on – but they’re only there to lay another tile of the 2D story, which so far has made not one unexpected or intriguing turn.

Never mind, it’s perfectly serviceable, undemanding drama, with a bit of (not nearly enough) action here and there. But Homeland it ain’t.

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Odyssey begins with a double bill at 9:15pm on Sunday 28th June on BBC2