By: Jon O’Brien
Adrian Grenier is best-known for playing a douchebag movie star in badly-aged satire Entourage and, according to the internet, the worst boyfriend ever in workplace comedy The Devil Wears Prada. So you may well enjoy a sense of schadenfreude watching his character suffer at the hands of a social media-friendly kidnapper in Netflix’s latest miniseries Clickbait. Even more so when you see what’s written on his hostage sign.
The chiselled actor stars as Nick Brewer, a physical therapist whose seemingly harmonious home life unravels thanks to a video clip he certainly doesn’t want to go viral. “I abuse women,” the badly-beaten family man ‘confesses’ on camera having been abducted in broad daylight. “At five million views I die.”
It’s a neat, contemporary twist on the race against time premise, and one which allows director Tony Ayres (The Slap, Stateless) the chance to explore the pitfalls of today’s online world: the snap judgements that can instantly destroy lives, the preying upon vulnerable dating app users, annoying YouTubers. There are also echoes of Black Mirror’s White Bear when a crowd of rubberneckers all point their phones towards a potentially grim discovery.
The opener suggests we’re in for a thrill-a-minute ride as Nick’s loved ones attempt to fathom the authenticity of said clip, and then desperately try to ensure its view count doesn’t rise above the deadly. A reverse cyberspace take on Speed, you could say. But after cranking up the tension with some snappy editing and a pulsing techno soundtrack, Clickbait soon takes its foot off the gas and settles into a relatively conventional police procedural.
In fact, take away the occasional F-word and you could be watching another spin-off from the never-ending Crime Scene Investigation franchise. It’s certainly not averse to the odd cop show cliché. There’s the career-hungry detective (Phoenix Raie) clashing with his by-the-book boss (Steve Mouzakis), for example, and where to start on the ridiculously lax attitude to password security? Then there’s the teenage tech nerd apparently more resourceful than the professionals (perhaps a nod to Netflix’s other cyber-sleuthing original, Don’t F**k with Cats?)
The high-concept thriller does, however, keep you intrigued by presenting each of its following seven episodes from a different perspective, all of whom could have a potential motive. There’s Pia (The Big Sick’s Zoe Kazan), the abrasive sibling who fought with Nick at their mother’s birthday dinner the night before his disappearance; there’s Sophie (Get Out’s Betty Gabriel), the slightly detached wife whose emotionless press appeal for his return immediately sparks suspicion. And then there’s Emma (Jessie Collins, who interestingly once played a serial killer in CSI), one of the many women who come forward claiming they had a romantic relationship with the missing man.
Set in Oakland, California yet filmed in Melbourne (watch out for a surprise cameo from a former Home and Away favourite), Clickbait’s Rashomon-like approach leaves you constantly guessing. Not only over the identity of those responsible for Nick’s fate, but whether he’s also deserving of it. Kazan particularly impresses at conveying such doubts too. On one hand, Pia desperately wants to believe the kind-hearted brother who helped her overcome a family tragedy has been wronged. On the other, the sheer weight of evidence stacking up – including a damning TV interview with perhaps the most obsessive ‘other woman’ – severely tests her loyalty.
Unfortunately, the show appears to have a crisis of confidence itself half-way through. Episode five switches focus to a smarmy newscaster (Abraham Lim) who sees the case as an opportunity to increase his profile. This vague commentary on the lack of moral boundaries in today’s media landscape is entertaining enough but leans just a bit too hard into the sensational.
And apart from a brief, if unexpectedly sweet, detour into the dating exploits of oldest son Ethan (Camaron Engels), the Brewers essentially become sidelined as Clickbait reaches its improbable denouement. Sure, it’s not quite up there with the sheer insanity of this year’s Behind Her Eyes. Yet even the fastidious armchair detectives of Don’t F**k with Cats would struggle to find the remotest of clues in relation to the big reveal.
Of course, you could argue that the clue was there all along. Clickbait is, by its very definition, deceptive, misleading and prone to leaving you feeling slightly cheated. Yet overall, this modestly diverting whodunit manages to sustain, as well as draw, your attention without insulting your intelligence.