HBO’s ‘The Third Day’ Is Horribly Familiar – and That’s What Makes It Worth Watching

Plus, Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen’s ‘The Middleman’ is a blackly comic delight and HBO’s ‘Coastal Elites’ could be the Jewiest anti-Trump show of the year

Adrian Hennigan
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Jude Law in HBO/Sky's "The Third Day."
Jude Law in HBO/Sky's "The Third Day." Credit: HBO
Adrian Hennigan

Generally speaking, an Englishman’s emotions are a lot like governments trying to handle the coronavirus: easy to put into lockdown, far harder to open up again afterward.

Take, for instance, Jude Law’s character in the intriguing new HBO/Sky co-production “The Third Day.” Here’s a guy who’s bottled up more stuff than Coca-Cola and buried his secrets deeper than a Mafia don’s.

His character, Sam, is a garden center manager – surely a first in the annals of television history – who we first encounter on a remote country road in southern England, stressed over an apparent robbery in which £40,000 (just over $50,000) has gone missing from his office.

In what could be the most middle-class crime ever planned (except inside the homes of Felicity Huffman or Lori Loughlin), the money was intended as a bribe for someone on a council planning committee, in a make-or-break ploy to save Sam’s plant business. Just call it seed money.

The timing of the news couldn’t be worse. For reasons that are initially unclear, Sam is taking a time-out to visit a remote woodland, where he will ceremoniously place a child’s striped T-shirt on a river and watch it float downstream.

But it’s as he walks through the woods afterward that his troubles begin. For reasons we won’t spoil, he ends up driving a teenager, Epona (the excellent Jessie Ross), to her home on a small estuary island called Osea – a place only reachable at low tide via a cinematically curving causeway.

This backwater is home to 93 flaky residents (think Fire Island if all of the locals wore MAGA hats fashioned out of animal skin) and an even flakier Wi-Fi reception. Most people’s instinct would be to get the hell out, but Sam’s concern for Epona’s well-being means he decides to hang around for a short while.

It’s to prove a life-changing decision for him, setting us off on a magical mystery tour that frequently strains credulity to the breaking point yet always manages to engage, longueurs and all.

Law is almost 50, believe it or not – and you won’t believe that when you see his sun-kissed features in extreme close-up here (you also won’t believe quite how furry his hands are). Yet in his 30-plus years in the business, he’s never had quite as juicy a role as this, even when he was swanning around the Vatican in his papal robes for “The Young Pope.”

The six-part series is divided into two halves, “Summer” and “Winter,” each segment taking place over three days (in other words, the average length of a British summertime).

I found the first section far more engrossing, the show slipping down a gear or three in the winter section – a necessary development given the show’s plotline, but one that proves problematic in terms of momentum.

The show is most rewarding in how it marries modern-day Britain with fantastical rural myths, creating something that feels a lot like a post-Brexit version of “The Wicker Man”: a decaying island looking for primeval answers to fix its current problems – and, yes, the islanders are horribly divided over a core issue. The only surprise is that no one mutters “Taking back control of our borders” at any point.

Indeed, “The Wicker Man” – Robin Hardy’s 1973 horror classic, of course, not the risible Neil LaBute remake in 2006 – looms over “The Third Day” like Michelle Obama over a Melania Trump speech.

If you’ve never seen the Edward Woodward film, in which his innocent policeman visits a remote Scottish island during a pagan festival to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, firstly, why not? Secondly, you’ll enjoy “The Third Day” in a completely different way to someone who has.

The series consciously toys with your awareness of that film (in much the same way Ari Aster’s 2019 film “Midsommar” does), teasing you about Sam’s presumed fate and the Celtic pagan rituals on show. Speaking of which, some of these locals appear more inclined to string outsiders up from a May Pole rather than dance around it singing “Sumer [sic] is Icumen In.”

Another part of the show’s appeal is how it draws on real-life characters and events. Osea is an actual island in Essex (east of London), accessible via a causeway for just four hours each day. And, as stated in the series, at the turn of the 20th century a millionaire brewer called Frederick Charrington really did establish a retreat for some of London’s alcoholics on this 400-acre island, reasoning that it would be the perfect place for them to get clean and sober. (Incidentally, Amy Winehouse was among the “guests” at a modern rehab facility on the island in the early 2000s.)

Even the music festival mooted to take place in the show – which seems set to be the British version of the Fyre Festival, given the island’s glaring lack of amenities – is inspired by previous events actually held on the island.

Ironically, given Charrington’s dream for Osea, much of the drama in “The Third Day” takes place in a pub – the likes of which hasn’t been seen on our screens since David Naughton and Griffin Dunne innocently wandered into The Slaughtered Lamb in “An American Werewolf in London” nearly 40 years ago.

At times, pub landlords Mr. and Mrs. Martin (Paddy Considine and Emily Watson, serving large servings of ham at all hours) make the series feel like a mélange of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, particularly “The World’s End” and “Hot Fuzz.”

I kept waiting to hear someone utter the classic words “Crusty jugglers” from the latter, but had to suffice with guff like “Everything here is either salt or soil, sea or land. Stuff we believe in – traditions.” To paraphrase cult British comedy “The League of Gentlemen,” this is a local pub for local people.

The show just about survives its riper moments, and it’s easy to spot the thematic similarities between “The Third Day” and “Utopia,” the previous series from co-creator Dennis Kelly. “Utopia” also offered a fantastical, apocalyptic vision of the world – its narrative about a comic book predicting the end-time being replaced here by Osea Island as “the soul of the world,” its fate echoing that of the entire planet.

This definitely won’t be to all tastes and, like HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” before it, teeters on the edge of the dramatic abyss at times with its out-there premise. Overall, though, “The Third Day” is definitely worth marking in your viewing calendar.

‘The Middleman’

Israeli writer Etgar Keret is a funny guy. His short stories succeed in conjuring up the bizarrest of worlds in the briefest number of words, so it’s no surprise that his screen adaptations are also full of memorable sight gags.

His latest, “The Middleman,” was reportedly deemed too weird for Israeli television when Keret shopped the script around his homeland – which is why it eventually made its way to Israeli screens via France, where it was turned into a four-part series with the title “L’agent Immobilier” (“The Realtor”).

This is another collaboration between Keret and his wife-work partner Shira Geffen – the two previously teamed up on the intoxicating 2007 Israeli film “Jellyfish” – and this is another little gem: quirky (of course), laugh-out-loud funny, convention-defying and increasingly poignant.

It must be one of the few shows in which the relationship between a man and his daughter is explored while the childhood relationship between the same man and his parents is simultaneously explored without recourse to flashbacks – all with the magical aid of a goldfish (not the first time Keret has featured this creature in one of his stories).

Mathieu Amalric as a down-on-his-luck realtor in Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen's "The Middleman."
Mathieu Amalric as a down-on-his-luck realtor in Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen's "The Middleman."Credit: ARTE / Cellcom tv

At the series’ center is Olivier Tronier (Mathieu Amalric), a homeless, divorced realtor who’s living hand-to-mouth in the properties he’s seeking to sell – leading to some less-than-professional situations (“We’re not used to realtors receiving us in their socks,” says one recoiling couple as they show up for a viewing).

The story’s plot driver is the death of Olivier’s mother and the surprise revelation that she left him a dilapidated apartment block in a hardscrabble Parisian neighborhood in her will. “Fixer-upper” would be too kind a term for the place, its residents being an old lady on the top floor and a drug addict on the ground floor. And then that goldfish enters Olivier’s life in the most tragicomic of ways, ensuring nothing will be the same again.

There are so many delights here: Olivier’s wastrel father (when asked if he’s drunk, he replies “That too”); Olivier’s strained relationship with his own daughter (she sketches a drawing on his plaster-cast arm with the words “I am a shit dad”), but the loving one he develops with a young girl who appears in his apartment block whenever he goes to sleep; and the Jewish loan shark who’s expecting Olivier to welch on a payment to him, kindly explaining to his young son in Hebrew about his scheme to take over the block.

To be honest, “The Middleman” would have worked equally well as a two-hour film. But the extra running time allows us to get to know the characters better and enables them to work their charms to even greater effect. Amalric is wonderful in the title role, while Eddy Mitchell as father Rémy delivers the biggest yuks.

“It’s a crazy story,” Olivier tells his ex-wife at one point. “You don’t say – you only do crazy,” she responds, thereby offering us a perfect summation of Keret’s unique charm. Do seek it out.

‘Coastal Elites’

For the Jewiest hour or so of television this week, you should tune into HBO’s one-off special “Coastal Elites,” written by Paul Rudnick (who will always have a special place in my heart for his “If You Ask Me” columns as “Libby Gelman-Waxner” in Premiere magazine over a decade ago).

“Coastal Elites” is a patchy affair in which five – please refer to title – rage about America in the age of Trump. The monologues (aka rants) were all shot with coronavirus restrictions in place (though the show’s Hebrew title, “Corona Time,” is a little misleading as the virus is only explicitly the subject of one monologue), so we get the likes of Bette Midler, Sarah Paulson and Issa Rae’s characters talking directly to camera about the Trump administration in some form or another.

The stars of HBO's "Coastal Elites": Issa Rae, left, Sarah Paulson, Bette Midler, Kaitlyn Dever and Dan Levy.
The stars of HBO's "Coastal Elites": Issa Rae, left, Sarah Paulson, Bette Midler, Kaitlyn Dever and Dan Levy.Credit: /AP

It’s all a bit sketchy, in both senses. However, the Midler segment in which her stereotypically liberal Jewish New Yorker, Miriam, recalls an interaction with a Trump supporter while she’s in a police interrogation room did make me laugh. A lot. (“What religion are you officer? Catholic? And I’m the one being arrested!?”) Some of her choice one-liners include descriptions of Ivanka Trump (“She’s suddenly Jewish – like it’s a L’Oreal product”) and Hillary Clinton (“The New York Times in a pantsuit”). There are far worse things to watch as Israel heads back into lockdown.

“The Third Day” is on Hot HBO on Tuesdays at 10 P.M. and Yes Drama from Monday September 21 at 9:45 P.M. New episodes will be available every Tuesday on Hot VOD, Yes VOD, Cellcom tv, Sting TV and Next TV. “The Middleman” is showing exclusively on Cellcom tv from Thursday, while “Coastal Elites” is on Hot HBO at 10:30 P.M. this Sunday, and also Yes VOD, Hot VOD, Next TV and Cellcom tv the same day, later airing on Yes Drama.

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