Surprised That TV Can Still Surprise Me: ‘Southcliffe’

When you have studied cinematic story structure and (more importantly) watched a lot of TV, it takes a lot to be surprised by TV shows. Truly, genuinely surprised and shocked. Sure, a series can surprise in being better (or worse) than expected. Take Penny Dreadful as an example of the former and The Strain as an example of the latter. The feeling of not having a clue where a show is going and yet still being engaged enough to go on the ride is rare…at least for me. Southcliffe is the exception.

In what could have been a run-of-the-mill crime drama, Southcliffe centers on a suburban English town (described as a sleepy market town although not even Wikipedia could help me understand what that means) reeling from a recent mass shooting spree. The shooter is the local “weird dude” in town, named Stephen Morton (Sean Harris) although everyone calls him the Commander due to his affinity for the military. An ambitious reporter David Whitehead (Rory Kinnear) is assigned the incident due to his connection with the town. He grew up in Southcliffe and was even a childhood friend with Morton. Suspense, anger, and grief ensue.

It’s hard to really describe what Southcliffe is about because not only is it only four episodes, it has a nonlinear narrative structure. The episode descriptions on Netflix are laughable for they make it seem like David is the main character slowly unraveling the mystery surrounding the murders. He does kind of but not really.

At its core, Southcliffe is an ensemble series — Harris, Kinnear, Joe Dempsie (Gendry!), Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle!), and Anatol Yusef (That Guy on Boardwalk Empire!) all have shining dramatic moments.

Southcliffe features the most ambitious use of nonlinear narrative structure that I’ve seen in modern television — more so than Lost, Once Upon A Time, and True Detective. In this case, nonlinear narrative structure means that each and every scene doesn’t follow in chronological order.

For instance, one scene may show Stephen caring for his invalid mother, the next scene flashbacks back to David and Stephen as children sitting on a boat, and then the scene could cut to Stephen jogging along the road carrying an AK-47.

Southcliffe isn’t for everyone, and even for me, the series had fundamental problems. It’s inherently slow and difficult to follow. The temporality of scenes is intentionally vague. Is it a flashback? Is it the present or past? What is the present? What’s real? What is anything anymore? What?

I don’t like every aspect of Southcliffe, but I love how fresh, weird, and new it feels.

Suggestion: If you do decide to watch (and you should), then watch it alone. Southcliffe is riddled with silent moments in which suspense and contemplation reign. Adding a running commentary, at least besides the one running through your mind, would ruin the experience. Then, after watching it, immediately hound people to talk about it (or write a blog post about it). It’s a heavy and tragically timely series. Dialogue is important — if not on the show’s themes, then on the unexpected Skins reunion with Joe Dempsie and Kaya Scoledario!

Southcliffe. It’s a thing. Tell your friends.

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