Television * BBC/Hulu * Incredibly Vague Pre-Apocalypse * 2018
Well dammit. I was really hoping Hard Sun was going to be better than it is, because the sub-genre it inhabits is relatively unexplored. Let me give you the pitch real quick, then I’ll complain. Hard Sun is a reference to an undisclosed, impending apocalyptic event that nobody realizes is coming. One of the first shots of the show is of a very stern woman in a fancy office receiving official looking intelligence that the world is going to end due to something known as ‘Hard Sun.’ She’s stoic but devastated. This information is hacked and after a grisly murder some dude ends up with a flash drive which contains the Hard Sun info. The audience never sees what’s on this drive, but we know that it’s highly credible and that humanity has five years left before the extinction level event pops off. Meanwhile, the show is mostly concerned with two cops, DCI Hicks and DI Renko. These two are real fucked up in all kinds of heavy handed ways, which I’ll get to later. Anyway, they pretty quickly stumble across this flash drive and the aforementioned stoic lady, Grace, attempts to recover the Hard Sun information by any means necessary, because she’s MI-5, you see. Somehow MI-5 is the only agency on earth with this information. Okay, sure thing Britain. Anyway, the series has multiple storylines, but hanging over everything is this impending apocalyptic event.
Now, I think this idea is cool is because there are very few stories out there dealing with the concept of a pre-apocalypse. There’s lots of disaster stories about apocalypses in progress, and these usually only feature a brief period of pre-apocalypse as a setup to the more exciting shit-blowing-up part. Think Independence Day and the like. These stories tend to focus on the spectacle of the bad thing and the heroic endeavors of the characters who manage to survive the initial onslaught of the disaster. Very little consideration is given to the before or the after, and are generally action focused. The bulk of apocalyptic stories tend to be after the bad thing. Post-apocalyptic stories are attractive because they can strip away all the abstract modern contrivances of civilization and focus on the raw humanity of the survivors, and how they choose to survive, organize, and rebuild. Then you’ve got the post-post apocalypse story, like Adventure Time or the Dark Tower, which is fun because you can imagine pretty much any kind of nonsense you want, so long as it acknowledges the long ago before-times. Meanwhile, stories which focus on a society that knows the bad thing is coming but can’t do much about it are few and far between.
Hard Sun, therefore, had the potential to do something vital and interesting in an under-explored space. It’s frustrating, then, because Hard Sun fails to capitalize on what makes its premise cool and original, and its failings span the entire production. The show is just bleak, dire, and convoluted to the point of being tiresome. Look, I know, apocalyptic fiction by its very nature skews toward heightened levels of human pathos. I’m obviously okay with that considering my weird love of the genre. That said, with the possible exception of The Road, most apocalyptic fiction knows to cut its bleakness with moments of levity or other human emotions other than depression, rage, and fear. Hard Sun does not do this, and is nowhere near the level of quality as The Road, and therefore cannot get away with treating its audience like this. Every episode is a chore, because these characters are always experiencing some kind of heightened emotion. There’s always some kind of artificially inflated sense of tension in just about every single scene, and it’s exhausting. Now, if you want to know story specifics about why you probably shouldn’t spend the time watching Hard Sun, follow me after the break.
All these characters are fucking awful. I don’t even necessarily mean that they’re awful people, although most of them are. I mean that they’re either under-developed, over-acted, poorly written, or all of the above. First up is our protagonist duo, DCI Charlie Hicks and DI Elaine Renko. Hicks’ character is all over the damn place, and it’s like the writers were making a game out of how many perspective changes they could pull on the audience over the course of six episodes. Get this. He’s a devoted family man. He clearly loves his wife and daughter. Oh but wait, because he’s cheating on her! With the wife of his dead partner, even. Okay, but he’ll stop at nothing to protect his family, including double-crossing Renko like five times to do so. Plus he clearly hates injustice and baddies, and puts his own life on the line many times to protect the innocent and catch the perpetrator. But also he totally killed his partner. Because he was bad? The show’s not clear on that part, nor is it clear on whether it wants us to actually like Hicks or not. Well, I don’t.
Meanwhile, Hard Sun begins with DI Renko. She’s a little better, but is still heavy-handed and lacking in any mode other than Very Serious. The first time Renko shows up she’s in her kitchen getting the ever-loving shit kicked out of her by a hooded assailant, who she manages to stab in the eye with a fork before getting knocked out. The assailant then burns her house down, but she obviously escapes. And then oh snap, the would-be killer is actually her mentally ill son. Who she loves and will stop at nothing to protect, even if it involves double-crossing Hicks like five times. Also pretty much every episode features her getting her ass kicked? At least she usually dishes it out as much as she takes it, but there’s a lot of questionable violence in this series, as if it’s not confident in its story enough to go without a fight every nine minutes. Anyway, Renko is also secretly investigating the murder of Hicks’ partner. She decides he didn’t do it, but then finds out he totally did it, apparently with a good reason, because in the end she helps frame Grace for the murder. Which is fine because fuck Grace.
Those are the two main characters, and are the two main reasons the show fails to find its footing. Nobody else helps. Grace, the show’s main villain, is stoic to the point of being boring. I get it, she’s supposed to be the menacing blank face of the repressive arm of the government, but mostly Grace is just obnoxious. Like Hicks and Renko, she will stop at nothing to protect her family. If there’s an overall theme to Hard Sun, it’s that family comes first even if you have to destroy other people’s families to protect them. Besides the two overwrought protagonists and the dull antagonist, Hard Sun is populated with other ostensible humans who don’t do much. There are other cops who should have personalities but don’t. And let me be clear: I’m not looking for a Tom Arnold in True Lies situation where some goof is cracking wise the whole time. I’m just looking for signs of life. Most of the characters in Hard Sun are not aware of the stakes, and therefore shouldn’t be expected to be so grey and dour all the time. I mean, I know they’re British, but come on. Other than the cops, you’ve got Hicks’ wife and his mistress, both of whom are there mostly in service of showing us how gross Hicks is. Also they cry a lot. Oh, and then there’s a random rogue’s gallery of murderers who all suck.
In addition to being about an impending apocalypse nobody knows about, Hard Sun is also a cop show. Strip away Grace hunting down Hicks and Renko to recover the Hard Sun flash drive, and you’ve already got a convoluted setup. As mentioned, Renko is investigating Hicks for the murder of his partner. But also, there’s a number of other killers whose crimes the duo are charged with solving. This ties into the overall narrative, since they seem to be inspired by the whole Hard Sun thing. The thing is, the show is so busy with all this other stuff, most of the murder-solving is undercooked. Hard Sun is simply stretched too thin at this point. The final episode of the season brings in a new murder mystery which is barely set up, and distracts from the more important aspect of the episode, which is framing Grace for the murder of Hicks’ partner. But no, off go Hicks and Renko to save some cop we don’t even know from some mysterious murderer that we’ve only just heard about ten minutes ago. It’s distracting and largely pointless.
By the end of the six episodes, that was largely my takeaway form this whole thing. Distracting and largely pointless. Mostly I kept thinking about a trilogy of books I quite enjoyed and definitely recommend if the idea of a pre-apocalypse appeals to you, which are The Last Policeman books. That story is about a cop doing his job in the face of obliteration. In that case, it’s an asteroid on a collision course with Earth instead of a vague thing about the sun, but the idea is the same. There’s a set amount of time left, so what will these characters do knowing that after that time is up, it all ends? Those books are about what drives humanity to carry on, despite the general futility of it all. Hard Sun gets distracted from all of that with tepid, half-baked murder stories and borderline unbearable characters. Maybe, just maybe, if there’s a second season I’ll watch it. And only because by the end of this first season, the rest of humanity will know about the impending apocalypse. It’s like a black hole eating the sun, I guess? If so, they fucked up by not licensing “Black Hole Sun,” a song I cannot stand, to play over the ending credits. Anyway, that at least will free Hard Sun from the constraints of only having a few characters know the truth. That said, I’m not exactly filled with confidence that they can do much with what they have.