Stay Close is the most recent in a string of Harlan Coben adaptations on Netflix. It’s his third English-language series for the streaming service, following Safe in 2018 and The Stranger in 2020; there are a further nine such series planned for the next few days. They’re always reliably popular for Netflix, and Stay Close – starring Cush Jumbo, James Nesbitt, and Richard Armitage amongst others – is being positioned as its big New Year’s Eve drama.
As is often the case with crime thrillers like this, Stay Close is about a group of people haunted by their past – a past that’s come rushing forward into the present, threatening to disrupt their comfortable if stagnant suburban lives. Megan Pierce (Cush Jumbo) is a mother of three who reinvented herself seventeen years ago; Mike Broome (James Nesbitt) is a burned-out detective still obsessed with a seventeen-year-old cold-case; Ray Levine (Richard Armitage) is a struggling photographer still reeling from the disappearance of his girlfriend seventeen years earlier. The characters’ lives are, as you’d expect, intertwined, and Stay Close weaves a complex plot as it moves from one thread of its story to the next.
At its most basic level, Stay Close is very watchable. It feels designed to be binged, one episode leading into the next – it’s compelling in the sort of way that makes you want to keep going with it, if not necessarily compelling in the sort of way that you’d remember it in much detail a few months down the line. It’s atmospheric and suspenseful, often tense and dramatic, never quite addictive but certainly gripping: if you liked Safe, you’ll very likely enjoy this too. (Previous Harlan Coben adaptations are the best point of comparison for this, for more reasons than just the obvious – these Netflix series often feel like a tone unto themselves, more upbeat and less dour than an ITV thriller, more zippy and less grounded than a BBC drama like The Girl Before.)
Stay Close has its flaws, certainly. One of them is a slightly unusual one, actually, in that the series struggles to convey much sense of geography. Likely a result of translating Harlan Coben’s novel (set in America) to television (filmed, and therefore presumably set, in and around Blackpool and Manchester), Stay Close director Daniel O’Hara never quite manages to articulate where the different parts of the town are in relation to one another. Much as that sounds like an insignificant critique to make, it quickly proves unexpectedly distracting – without that kind of physical grounding, you start to get the sense that Megan assumed a new identity by… well, moving half-an-hour down the road, and what wouldn’t normally be an issue threatens to undercut much of the emotional throughline here.
At times the series also struggles with tone. Its villains – named ‘Ken’ and ‘Barbie’ in the credits, though the inverted commas suggest they’re pseudonyms – feel like they’ve walked in from another show entirely: specifically, a musical. (Actually, not just a musical – there’s something faintly Riverdale about them, Hyoie O’Grady and Poppy Gilbert having an air of Jason and Cheryl Blossom.) They dance and sing to Radiohead’s Creep while disposing of a body; they perform what looks like quite complicated choreography during a murder attempt. It might be unfair to say Stay Close struggles with tone – the musical interludes are done fairly well, bewildering though they are – but they start with no warning at all, and it’ll surely prove divisive amongst audiences.
In all other respects, Stay Close is essentially exactly what you’d expect it to be, nothing more or less. It’s a little indelicate and cliché about sex work, but equally, it’s of a genre that almost always is. Cush Jumbo is excellent, bringing an intensity to the part beyond what’s on the page; James Nesbitt and frequent scene partner Jo Joyner are clearly having a lot of fun throughout, both getting in a lot of good jokes. It’s well-directed (often well-lit in particular), and has plenty of nice flourishes throughout: the camera pans across a small Police Box biscuit tin on a desk in the first episode, either a nice bit of symbolism in a story about the past coming back to haunt people, or a subliminal suggestion that Cush Jumbo should be the next Doctor Who. (She should!)
Ultimately, Stay Close is what it is: a more-than-slightly schlocky thriller, certainly watchable but equally forgettable, but a perfectly diverting way to spend an evening if you already know you like this sort of thing.
Stay Close arrives on Netflix on December 31. I’ve seen the first 4 of its total 8 episodes before writing this review.
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