British spy drama haunted by cold beauty

Remember The X-Files? For those who somehow missed the 1990s, that supernatural drama series was a milestone in the evolution of television. It was one of the first shows to break away from the old formula of disconnected episodes, and experiment with long-form storytelling. In the process, it helped to transform television into a more sophisticated medium.

Now, Frank Spotnitz, who was the head writer for The X-Files, has a new series: Hunted, an intricate British spy drama.
Hunted eschews any mention of the supernatural, but it does feature numerous plots and conspiracies. And Hunted, even more so than The X-Files, is a series that is not afraid to make cognitive demands on its audience.

The plot of Hunted is so complex that it would be impossible to describe in any detail. The central character is Sam (played by Australian actress Melissa George), who is a spy working for a privately owned intelligence agency called Byzantium. After a successful assignment in Morocco, she is attacked and shot by a group of armed men. She believes that someone from her own company ordered the attack, so she vanishes, lays low, and plots revenge against her assailants. One year later, she returns to her old boss and announces that she is still alive, and he, with some reservation, accepts her back into the fold.

This sets the stage for a mystery that is reminiscent of the writings of John le Carre. There are six agents working alongside Sam. She initially assumes that one of them must be the culprit and she begins whittling down the list of suspects. But things are never so simple. Soon enough, new complications and plot twists are piled on top of each other like cars in a multilane crash.

The series does not aim for procedural realism in the style of, say, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. No one would mistake this for an accurate portrayal of how intelligence agencies, private or otherwise, actually work. However, this is also not the cartoonish, action-heavy depiction of espionage that is found in Alias or James Bond movies. Instead, Hunted strives for something different: for surrealism rather than reality. Most of the scenes it depicts are long, silent and pregnant with paranoia. Every now and then, this atmosphere is punctuated with brutal bouts of violence.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Hunted is how little dialogue there is. If there was a scale that ranked every television show ever made according to the average number of words spoken per minute, I’m convinced that Hunted would be near the bottom of the list. Just like in real life, there are long periods in which important things happen, but nobody is actually saying anything. Don’t expect too many of those handy moments of exposition, common to most films and TV shows, in which characters say out loud what they’re thinking.

Television is an inherently wordy medium, so it’s genuinely surprisingly to come across a series that relies so heavily on visual storytelling. Fortunately, the visual direction in Hunted is impressive. You could freeze-frame almost any shot in the series, and end up with a beautifully composed still photograph. The flipside of all this beauty is that the show’s treatment of its human characters is rather cold. Most of the characters are ciphers: their motivations are kept secret. All of this adds up to a series that sometimes feels easier to admire than to enjoy.

Hunted has a single, continuous storyline, which plays out more like an eight-hour movie than a series of discrete episodes. As a result, it’s tough on viewers who join halfway through. Actually, the show is tough on everyone. The combination of complexity and lack of expository dialogue makes for a series that is uniquely taxing on the viewer. I must confess that, even though I consider myself a careful viewer of television, I’m not even sure exactly what is happening in this show. I can’t wait to see more.

Hunted is shown on Wednesdays at 9.30pm on M-Net Series

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