This six-part 2017 British TV series is everything a good conspiracy thriller should be. And it’s everything 2016’s Paranoid was not.
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR FEARLESS SEASON 1
Paranoid felt like it was written by a five-year-old with a big book of conspiracy clichés close at hand. Risible characters, panto performances, juvenile—sometimes nonsensical—dialogue, and a plot that was as original as a bar of soap, and as subtle as a hammer to the face.
Fearless is light years ahead in every respect. Brilliantly written by Patrick Harbinson of 24 and Homeland fame, it’s the epitome of what I look for in a conspiracy thriller. A gripping mystery, full of shady characters with hazy motives colluding to bury the truth while our protagonist seeks desperately to uncover it. In this case, our protagonist is a lawyer, Emma Banville, defending a guy, Kevin Russell, who went down for murder 14 years ago but has always maintained that he didn’t do it. Helen McCrory, playing her, is wonderful. Her performance is nuanced, convincing and profoundly affecting in a way Indira Varma as lead character Nina Suresh in Paranoid painfully wasn’t.
The premise is hardly new to the conspiracy genre—lawyer discovers that her client accused of murder is being set up by powerful forces seeking to hide something bigger—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s what you do with it that matters. The plot you build out of it. And Fearless’s plot is relentlessly compelling. Conspiracy thrillers are typically a lot more complicated that your basic whodunit. They have to be. Because lots-of-people-dunit. Their mysteries have to be multi-layered, each layer thicker than the one before. Fearless’s mystery is just that. At multiple points during the six episodes I found myself shouting at the TV, “What the hell is going on?!” Paranoid, on the other hand, wanted to be complicated, but was a baby pretending to be a grown-up. Every plot development was so obvious that it made Nina Suresh and her buddies look like the stupidest cops on the planet.
The first episode of Fearless spends its time building the characters and making us wonder about the guilt of Kevin Russell, accused of murdering a teenager called Linda Simms in 2003. As to whether Russell is guilty, involved somehow with Simms’ death but not guilty of murder, or wholly innocent of it, the show doesn’t tell us right away. However, by the end of the first episode, we know that there are some unseen cogs in this machine. There’s a telephone call between a mysterious old man played by Michael Gambon and an equally mysterious American woman played by Robin Weigert, strongly hinting at a cover-up to do with the Russell case.