The work of Neil Cross isn’t known for its sunny disposition. If he were a painter, one would imagine his canvases covered solely in brush strokes of varying shades of gray. If you’ve ever tuned in for his hit detective series Luther, starring Idris Elba, you know exactly what that means. The worlds Cross builds into his television shows are hard and bleak and beautifully drab. Even when the sun is up it never shines. His newest series, Hard Sun, takes that somber aesthetic to the extreme: the celestial object Cross seems fixated on neutralizing is now plotting its revenge and is out to kill everyone on the planet.
Hard Sun is more high concept than Luther, which took its character study of a gloomy detective consumed by his work to interesting enough places that Cross and Elba have plotted a return after season 4 was thought to have brought the series to an end. Here, Cross infuses a similarly cheerless detective story with an apocalyptic twist: the world will end in five years time and the government is doing everything in its power to keep that information a secret, lest panic and anarchy accelerate the already ominous timetable.
The series stars Agyness Deyn and Jim Sturgess as detectives Elaine Renko and Charlie Hicks, respectively. Think of the TV-iest TV detectives you’ve ever seen and these two will have them beat by a mile. Renko and Hicks are battling so many personal demons it would be no surprise to learn an exorcism had to be performed on the script. Early on, Renko is assigned to be Hicks’ new partner after his former one was killed. She’s also tasked with exposing his corruption, and in doing so discovers that he’s carrying on an extramarital affair with he dead partner’s wife, while his own wife is pregnant with their second child. Meanwhile, Renko’s own son — a mentally ill young man who is the product of sexual assault — attacks her at knife point, resulting in his being institutionalized in a mental hospital with less security than your average food truck.
Long before Renko and Hicks discover evidence of the world’s pending doom, Hard Sun plays more like it should have been called It’s Hard, Son. And that is, in the show’s own weird way, a big part of its charm. There are moments when the series feels like it’s swimming against the current of its own dark storytelling impulses, so that when even the tiniest ray of sunshine peeks through the otherwise unrelenting dreariness, the importance of those moments is unmistakable. Hard Sun turns on a series of these tonal shifts that would have registered as mundane if this were any other TV show; in this context, though, they suddenly feel extraordinary.
But Hard Sun takes its gloom and doom very seriously, and as a result, those moments are not only few and far between, but the show seems adamant about doubling down on the murkiness whenever they occur. And maybe that’s for the best, as Deyn and Sturgess appear more at ease in the show’s gray areas than anywhere else. They both turn in solid performances, but they’re performances enhanced by just how disheveled or bruised they happen to look at the time. Thankfully, given where they both stand on the moral spectrum, they’re often at odds enough to give one another those bruises. The first episode features a knock-down, drag-out brawl between Renko and Hicks after a government agent named Grace Morrigan, played by the always welcome Nikki Amuka-Bird, threatens Hicks’ family if he doesn’t return the Hard Sun file.
To the show’s credit, Hard Sun doesn’t play around with its big secret; it immediately sends it out into the open, a move that produces a very 2017-18 result — denial of the truth by institutions meant to safeguard the population, and a truther movement desperate to believe what has been dubbed a conspiracy. The twist, in this case, is that the conspiracy nuts are right. Using the idea of fake news and reality apathy to sustain what is essentially an unsustainable plot is an interesting choice, one that allows Cross the opportunity to fill the episodes with all manner of bleak criminality, tangentially related to or directly inspired by the Hard Sun information.
And make no mistake: it’s all very grim. People are murdered in gruesome ways. One killer in particular gets a multi-episode stint in which he responds to the world’s pending destruction by targeting good samaritans and publicly testing Catholic church’s seal of confession. The end result of which is both unexpected yet unsurprisingly disheartening. Peppered throughout that brief storyline are some interesting character moments that explore the difference between the weight of knowing everything eventually dies and knowing the precise moment when you’re going to die. Putting a time stamp on the end of everything changes a person’s worldview fundamentally and that’s at the heart of what makes Hard Sun interesting. It’s gloomy, yes, quite possibly the gloomiest cop series ever made, but as the story moves on, there are tiny hints here and there that it’s also willing to explore the things people choose to live for in the most hopeless of situations.
If you look at Hard Sun through the lens of what Cross has done before, it’s essentially Luther on a speculative fiction steroid. The unrelenting dreariness of the plot and setting is going to be a detraction for some, but there’s just enough of a human element peeking through the haze to ensure the story has some life.
Hard Sun continues next Wednesday with ‘One Thousand, Eight Hundred Days’ on Hulu.