I’d say here are two reasons to watch Keep Breathing (streams on Netflix). One is its presentation of the Canadian wilderness and the other is the outstanding solo work of its star, Melissa Barrera.
Regrettably, there are only two, the six-part series being a misfire in so many areas. Still, the setting and the acting give us a lot to think about.
Canadian co-creators and showrunners Brendan Gall and Martin Gero have said they wanted to present the beauty and unforgiving landscape as it is, rather than varnished or made ethereal with special effects. (It was made in British Columbia.) That is achieved. It is made crystal clear in the opening where it is set. Liv (Barrera), a twentysomething Manhattan-based lawyer, is really needing to get to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, for some reason. She’s so desperate she pays to fly with two rather sketchy guys.
The plane crashes into a remote lake and only Liv survives. This is the interesting part – for long periods, Barrera is acting solo. Liv must figure out on her own how to survive and get out of the wilderness. Watching an actor alone in a setting, the character struggling, is an enthralling experience, especially if you are drawn to finding out what actors can do alone.
Now me, I’m definitely enthralled by monologue work. At the recent Toronto Fringe, I saw one show. It was Iphigenia in Splott by the Welsh playwright Gary Owen. A single character, Effie, tells her story on a bare stage for almost 80 minutes. The actor playing Effie in Toronto, Breanna Maloney, was magnificent, conveying the mischief, anger and adventures of Effie, with her voice, body language and the assistance only of two generic chairs on the stage.
In Keep Breathing, Barrera has the skill, confidence and charisma to work alone for long stretches. She compels you, even as you know she is being rather hopeless at the learning-to-survive-alone part of things.
It’s the other segments that disappoint. The many, many flashbacks to Liv’s life are fuzzy drama filled with some ponderous clichés. There’s the matter of Liv’s relationship, separately, with her mother and her father. There is her work at the legal office, where she is a coolly driven, no-nonsense lawyer. And there is her relationship with, it seems, newly acquired boyfriend Danny (Jeff Wilbusch). Danny is a handsome fella, in a delicate sort of way, but possibly the most boring lawyer on any legal show, ever.
Liv’s cold, workaholic personality is also on parade during much of the flashback scenes. But there isn’t much logic to the ways in which her inner demons are treated as drama. Fact is, Liv alone against the elements is far more interesting than her muddled backstory. That backstory is one of very conventional personal hang-ups and compulsions. Besides, none of the other actors can hold a candle to Barrera in what are weakly scripted scenes.
There has been a rash of survival dramas on TV. Usually there’s a plane crash to kick off the story. The Wilds (Amazon Prime Video) followed a group of teenage girls who are left stranded on an island following a plane crash and soon discover that, actually, it is all part of a social experiment. In the rather brilliant Yellowjackets (Showtime, streams on Crave) an all-girl soccer team literally fight for survival and turn ruthless.
Keep Breathing has neither the psychological heft nor the cunning interplay of before-and-after narratives of Yellowjackets. Come for the scenery here (it’s half-hour episodes) and stay around for the solo acting, but don’t expect to be fully, thrillingly engaged.
Finally, as this column won’t appear on Tuesday, take note of one must-watch program. That’s Ukraine: Life Under Russia’s Attack (Tuesday, PBS, 10 p.m. on Frontline). The documentary offers a dramatic, intimate, utterly vérité look inside the Russian assault on the city of Kharkiv, told by the people living through it. Those are civilians living underground, first responders trying to save lives and put out fires during Russian shelling, and ordinary people who simply refused to leave. Gripping, heartbreaking, it should put Ukraine back at the front of your mind.
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