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Fool Me Once review: Your tolerance for this show will hinge entirely on your ability to switch off your brain

Fool Me Once review: Your tolerance for this show will hinge entirely on your ability to switch off your brain
Fool Me Once review: Your tolerance for this show will hinge entirely on your ability to switch off your brain

As streaming libraries have been populated with more and more series, with more and more episodes, a phenomenon has emerged that is known as “the background binge”. It is when people turn on the TV, find a show to watch, put it on, and then proceed to do a variety of household tasks while barely watching the programme. That might sound like no way to truly watch television – the fruit of so many people’s hard labour – but it might be the best, or only, way to endure Netflix’s new eight-part thriller, Fool Me Once.

After her husband Joe (Richard Armitage) is shot dead, Maya (Michelle Keegan) struggles to hold the pieces of her life together. That means juggling sole custody of their daughter with her job training helicopter pilots, not to mention dealing with Joe’s prickly, moneyed family. Among its members are Joe’s mother Judith (Joanna Lumley), the family matriarch who never quite bought her son’s romance, and Joe’s brother and sister, Neil (James Northcote) and Caroline (Hattie Morahan).

“Was there a voice in his ear,” Maya asks, “saying: is she good enough? This bit of rough?” But when the supposedly dead Joe mysteriously appears on nanny-cam footage, hugging his daughter, Maya’s impulse to find out the truth – and protect herself – kicks in.

It’s hard to oversell how convoluted and implausible Fool Me Once really is. The plot takes in a military whistleblower, a policeman (played by Four Lions’s Adeel Akhtar) having strange seizures, and a cold-case suicide. But you already knew it was going to be ridiculous, because this is just the latest instalment in Netflix’s long-running deal with American mystery writer Harlan Coben. Coben, who attended Amherst College with Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown, makes his contemporary look like a paragon of literary restraint.

Back in 2018, Coben struck an unprecedented deal with Netflix to adapt 14 of his novels for the streaming service, the first of which, The Stranger, also starred Armitage and was adapted by Brassic creator Danny Brocklehurst (who is responsible for Fool Me Once). And so the “Harlan Coben Televisual Universe” was born.

There have been three major English-language Coben adaptations since 2020, all of which have starred Armitage (he must be on retainer at Netflix: he also headlined the platform’s erotic dud Obsession). Here, he is a figure in the background, appearing as a shadowy post-mortem presence, while his wife takes centre stage.

Keegan is a reliable actor on the small screen, though she is rarely challenged by scripts that test her dramatic range. Here she finds herself cast in the dual role of grieving widow and all-action army veteran (“There’s a nasty graze to his elbow there,” she says flirtatiously to a fellow shooter, pointing to the human target down the firing range).

Lumley, meanwhile, occupies the floating headline support role (previously filled by her Ab Fab co-star, Jennifer Saunders, in The Stranger), and is unusually restrained. Her psychiatrist mother-in-law is a bit of an irritant (“I know you’re not used to being a full-time mother,” she says, patronising Maya, “but children need their routines”), but she’s nothing compared to some of Lumley’s signature monsters.

Your tolerance for Fool Me Once will hinge entirely on your ability to switch off your brain and allow proceedings to wash over you. The plot, which is not really worth following, is further inhibited by melodramatic dialogue that swings between extremes of emotion. “I’m grieving,” Maya announces solemnly. “I lost the love of my life!” But watching a Harlan Coben adaptation for the zippy dialogue is like watching a Harold Pinter play for the action sequences.

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More problematic is how bad the show insists, needlessly, on looking. Keegan and Armitage are a beautiful couple, sure, but Coben’s world (Harland? Cobenia?) is an ugly place. The houses are all suburban McMansions, the cars all glimmering SUVs; no kitchen isn’t marble, no lawn not immaculately cut. It is a Ballardian middle-class nightmare played as lifestyle propaganda, alongside a colour grade that crushes every black into oblivion.

This is not TV to watch with your full attention. It is TV to watch while you think about that letter from HMRC, or you chop potatoes for your Sunday roast, or manicure your dog’s claws. It’s TV that has the capacity to shock you – not because the plot is shocking, but because you’re shocked it’s still on. Did the final episode autoplay? Ah well, it’s over now – unlike the Coben adaptations, which will keep on coming and coming.



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