Recently in this space, I was extolling the many virtues of the second season of HBO’s Succession, which is now a big-time Emmy winner. Among other points I laboured to make was the theatricality of key episodes. The central characters, none of them appealing, are put in confined spaces to act out their awfulness.
No sooner had I pronounced than along came a new Netflix series that has, and I kid you not, been called “the worst show on Netflix.” Thing is, it puts people in one remote location and there’s a well-known playwright involved.
The I-Land landed recently on Netflix and critics and viewers outdid each other to express contempt. Such fierce reaction was, well, notable. Makes one suspicious, too. Involved in writing the series is playwright and screenwriter Neil LaBute. Now, LaBute is probably best known for his movie In the Company of Men, which is about two obnoxious businessmen concocting a plan to romance and then emotionally destroy a deaf woman. It’s about really, really bad behaviour by toxic, misogynist men.
But his real prominence is his 30 years as a playwright, with his plays, often award-winning, including Filthy Talk for Troubled Time and The Mercy Seat. They usually dwell on men who either despise or oversimplify women. They’re intense, divisive works. As a scholar of his plays has said, his work “causes its audiences major moral discomfort.”
It’s in that context we must look at The I-land. Not in the babble of online derision. The seven-part series – episodes are about 40 minutes long – stars Natalie Martinez, Kate Bosworth and lesser-known actors as a group of strangers who wake up on a mysterious island with no memory of how they got there. It’s sort of like Lost with a minimal twist of bare-bones psychological paranoia. It’s not giving too much away to say that it becomes clear from flashbacks the characters experience that they are probably all criminals who have been deposited on the island as some sort of perverse experiment.
Things get off to a rocky start. One of the women says, “Maybe we’re on a work trip, we’re all wearing the same thing.” A man dismisses the idea. She snaps at him. He says, “You know you’re really confrontational, and you’re a real bitch.” Certainly one of the male characters is a rapist. He attempts two sexual assaults in the first two episodes. When confronted by one victim, he says, “I wasn’t trying to rape you. There’s no such thing like that in a place like this. There’s just sex and no sex. We didn’t have any sex." Chew on that as an example of a LaBute-ian take in how some men think.
Further, the characters immediately begin playing power-games with others, making this less a half-baked riff on Lost than it might be a perverse take on Survivor. It’s just that in The I-Land, some characters have a knife or an axe at their disposal and you know they are going to be wielded against other characters.
By Episode 3, many clues about the experiment are revealed and a different kind of show, with a different kind of action, is unfolding. We’re in sci-fi territory, but we suspected that from the beginning.
Read the credits for The I-Land and it’s allegedly “created” by one Anthony Salter. Except this person doesn’t seem to exist. He has no other credits, has no presence online and many believe it’s a pseudonym. That only adds to the mystery surrounding the series. Certainly, the very real LeBute was involved. He wrote the first four episodes and directed the pilot.
What he’s done is make a fascinating near-disaster of a series. The dialogue is often flat, the character development is thin and there are very odd sequences, such as the one in which a central female character is filmed running down a beach in panic, but it’s made in slow-motion with grave attention to her heaving bosom, as if Baywatch was being parodied. You have to see it to believe it, the peculiarity of such scenes.
And yet for all that, it is beyond doubt strangely fascinating and it would be wrong to write off the series and merely heap abuse on it, as many critics and viewers have done. It’s insanely structured and at times off-putting. But maybe it’s not a near-disaster and it’s actually an off-the-wall experiment that doesn’t quite click.
It’s not run-of-the-mill drama and actually about something – how men behave in isolation and how women react to them. One of the victims of the rapist guy on the island actually tells another woman, “What happened out there was my fault, entirely my fault.” That’s a conversation-stopper. This bizarre series, as idiosyncratic as it often is, asks the question: “Can a woman and the audience be persuaded to nullify that kind of attitude?”
Buckle up, don’t be afraid of “the worst show on Netflix,” because it isn’t that, at all.
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