Next of Kin looked so promising – but ITV's clunky new thriller struggles to deliver real drama
The first episode delivers great performances and believable characters but plot holes, clichés and tension-killing music destroy the drama, says Eleanor Bley Griffiths
Next of Kin looked so promising. Here was a supposedly tense new ITV thriller about secrets, intrigue and terrorism which would tackle some of the most important issues of the day and tell the story of a "normal" British Pakistani family living in London. Created by Bafta-nominated Paul Rutman and the author Natasha Narayan, it stars The Good Wife's excellent Archie Panjabi as well as well-loved actor Jack Davenport.
But as a riveting and topical thriller? Sadly, Next of Kin falls flat.
The drama introduces us to Mona (Panjabi) and the rest of the Shirani family, who are keenly awaiting the return of big brother Kareem (Navin Chowdry) from Lahore, Pakistan. When a bomb goes off in London, Mona and her family are shaken – but things take a turn for the worse when they discover Kareem has been abducted. At the same time, Kareem's son Danny seems to have gone missing.
It's probably best to start with the tension music, which kicks in immediately and thrums away in the background (and sometimes the foreground, almost overwhelming the dialogue). This generic soundtrack runs most of the way through the first episode, whatever's happening, and it's exhausting. Any actual tension is inevitably flagged up well in advance when the music revs up, so there are no shocks anywhere in this first instalment of this "thriller".
That's not the only clunky thing about Next of Kin, which – again – looked so intriguing and so unusual. Kareem is shown promising his sister he'll make his flight despite selflessly delaying his departure so he could operate on a poor kid with appendicitis. Obviously, that dooms him to miss it. CLUNK! An abandoned picture of Kareem and his teenage son Danny is a vehicle for an idyllic flashback of them running happily through sunny fields. CLUNK! Danny's mobile keeps going straight to voicemail and he's gone on a spontaneous holiday to Spain: where could he be? You've probably already guessed before the CLUNK comes.
And while much of the dialogue, the music and the action is disappointingly obvious, the timeline is so confusing that I had to rewind and watch the first half again in case I'd missed something. I really don't think I had.
Here's the problem: Mona is sitting in a taxi in London, on her way home from work, chatting to Kareem who is sitting in a taxi in Lahore on his way to the airport. At this point she sees a massive plume of smoke over London: a terrorist attack!
Still, she makes it to West London (two hours late) and helps with final preparations for Kareem's "welcome home" party. Guests start to arrive. The party begins. The food is on the table. There's a knock on the door – it must be Kareem! – and everyone hides so they can jump out and surprise him. Instead, grim-faced Detective Townsend delivers some devastating news.
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Now. Here's the confusion: unless he discovered a new and revolutionary route home, Kareem couldn't POSSIBLY be at the door. It's maybe three or four hours since Mona spoke to him, and he was on his way to the airport in Pakistan. The flight from Lahore to London takes eight hours and 25 minutes, not to mention security and passport control and baggage collection and all that fuss. It's a niggling plot hole – and if something so basic doesn't make sense, will the rest of the drama?
But even with all this frustration, Next of Kin's redeeming quality is its cast. Archie Panjabi and Jack Davenport have brilliant chemistry as married couple Mona and Guy Harcourt, with real affection and the kind of little moments – both tender and tense – that make an on-screen relationship believable.
And the Shirani family are a delight: from Mrs Shirani to Ani to Omar, from Mona to Kareem, careful writing stops them from ever coming close to stereotypes. They are all well-rounded and complex characters in their own right, but they come together as a unit. From when they're dancing around the kitchen to teasing each other and roughhousing, you can see the love and affection. After all, they are just a normal family (if such a thing exists) who are about to be hit by extraordinary events – and that makes this story more powerful.
With its multicultural and diverse characters, this is also a side of London you don't get to see as the focus of a TV show very frequently. And it's an important storyline, tackling extremism and radicalisation and racism, as well as loyalty and authority and family.
The sad thing is that Next of Kin doesn't quite do justice to its story. Perhaps it will pick up. Perhaps the scene-setting in episode one is the groundwork for a more surprising drama. But the opener leaves you frustrated and only vaguely wondering what happens next – and for a "thriller" that's a problem.
Next of Kin airs on Mondays on ITV at 9pm from 8th January