Then You Run is a unique gem hidden behind a seemingly generic plot
Despite some initial hiccups, the new series from The Capture writer Ben Chanan is a ride worth taking.
If you are a fan of BBC's The Capture, then the prospect of a new series from the same writer, Ben Chanan, is a seriously enticing one.
The first season of The Capture was a phenomenally tense, intricately crafted and thought-provoking thriller, and the second season was even better, becoming one of the best shows of last year.
However, I have to admit that when I saw the synopsis for Chanan's new series, Then You Run, my heart sank a little.
Where The Capture felt innovative and original, exploring a very real, existential threat to our way of life and our understanding of the truth, this was to be an adaptation of an established novel, with the plot revolving around gangsters, stolen drugs and miscreant teens.
It all felt a little pedestrian - and a little 'been there, done that'.
This feeling didn't wear off when I started watching. Beyond a shocking, punchy opening sequence, most of the first episode played out as expected, with a distinctly unlikeable set of characters getting wrapped up in a by-the-numbers criminal enterprise in Rotterdam.
Then, late into the first episode, I realised something - slowly, subtly and without noticing, I had become hooked.
The series follows Tara (Leah McNamara), a young woman who travels to stay with her father in Rotterdam after her grandmother and guardian dies.
She was meant to go on holiday with her friends Stink (Vivian Oparah), Ruth (Yasmin Monet Prince) and Nessi (Isidora Fairhurst), so they change their plans, and decide to join her there for the summer.
Heading out early, Tara gets reacquainted with her unreliable father, who lives the high life in the Dutch city. She also meets her uncle Reagan (Richard Coyle), who, it soon becomes clear, runs a brutal criminal enterprise.
It's difficult to tease plot specifics beyond that for fear of spoilers, but due to a series of events Tara and her friends end up on the run from Reagan with three kilos of heroin.
The primary reason that Then You Run works so well, despite my initial reservations, is that underneath all of its traditional genre trappings, it is actually surprisingly original.
For those completely unaware of the novel going in, the series is marked out most predominantly by its stunning visual style, popping with bright neon colours, and its tone, which is both unique and wholly engaging.
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The series is dealing with life-and-death situations, and isn't afraid to turn up the tension. Sequences in which characters are threatened feel legitimately menacing, and our central characters' lives feel as though they are genuinely on a knife edge.
At the same time, the show never takes itself too seriously - in fact, it is consistently funny, with the humour frequently landing through a combination of character and situation. It's not a series packed with jokes, but one that finds comedy in the innate ridiculousness of it all.
This is partly thanks to the quirky cast of characters assembled to tell this story, each bringing something different to the table.
Characters such as Stink, Reagan and the mysterious Traveller (more on him later) feel like they should, in many ways, all be in different stories, but the fact they have been smashed together in this one is half of the fun.
Every character has their place and their own function within the narrative, and it's a joy seeing how they play off one another in surprising, refreshing ways. They may be deeply flawed, but as you get to know them, they rub off on you, and you start to root for the protagonists despite - or perhaps because of - their shortcomings.
The reason these all gel so well together is that the entire series is, at its heart, a genre mash-up. It is, on the one hand, a gangster series, riffing on classic traditions of the genre. However, it is also a comedic coming-of-age story, about three friends learning to take responsibility.
Then, of course, there is the road trip element, which helps to punctuate the individual episodes and give the series both a sense of a pace and of variety. Finally, as with The Capture before it, there is a mystery element at play here.
It may not be as propulsive or all-consuming as in that series, which is packed to the brim with twists, but it is present from the show's very first scene, as the series introduces us to The Traveller.
He is a man who, in a series of brutal, excellently choreographed sequences playing out at the start of each episode, takes part in a seemingly unprovoked massacre of everyone in his vicinity.
With three episodes made available for review, it is not yet clear just how this storyline intersects with the central plot, but Chanan has been clear that it will do so.
Without knowing the conclusion of this storyline or how it will factor in fully, it's hard to give an assessment on its overall effectiveness. However, it certainly grabs the attention and creates a layer of additional intrigue, while actor Christian Rubeck makes for an engaging, chilling presence.
He isn't the only star helping to sell their scenes - each of the cast members here is on top form, with the four leads selling their own group dynamic and their individual traits with aplomb.
There's no doubt that the lack of big names in front of the camera will be a deterrant for some viewers, but it shouldn't be - these are all stars in the making, and the series should be praised for backing up-and-coming talent.
When it comes to the more established stars, Richard Coyle is appropriately formidable as Reagan, while Chanan also brings back his The Capture cast member Famke Janssen, although by the end of episode three it remains to be seen how she will factor in.
The size of the cast is notable, leaving Chanan with plenty of plates to spin as the series continues. Up until now he has deftly managed to give everyone their moment and their utility, but whether this impressive feat will hold up across the run will be crucial to determining the show's overall success.
Regardless, perhaps the most incisive point to make is that three episodes in the show has so far won me over, and there is no doubt that I will be returning to watch the remaining five episodes.
Then You Run may not yet be as gripping, innovative or intricately crafted as The Capture, and each cliffhanger may not leave you as short of breath as in that series.
But what this show still manages to do is to leave you wanting more and more, to continue on this ride with the girls as the episodes go on.
It is jam-packed with ideas, characters, themes and tones, but rather than leaving you bloated, it blends them into a delicious cocktail, one which is unlike any gangster show or coming-of-age series on TV right now.
Then You Run airs on Sky Max at 9pm on Friday 7th July 2023 – sign up for Sky TV here or stream on NOW.
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