2023 saw a total of three miniseries on the Sackler family, two of which were streamed on Netflix. There was Painkiller, which was helmed by Peter Berg and featured the famous faces of Matthew Broderick, Clark Gregg, and Uzo Aduba. Then there was Danny Strong’s Dopesick. Last but not least, we got The Fall of the House of Usher, where Mike Flanagan took a gothic approach to unfolding the saga of pharmaceutical fraud. Speaking of pharmaceutical fraud, there were several movies on the topic. Some of the most popular ones were Jawan, Pain Hustlers, Clock, and Birth/Rebirth. And it seems like we are stepping into 2024 with yet another story centered around that subject, i.e., Fool Me Once.
Based on Harlan Coben’s 2016 novel, Danny Brocklenhurst’s adaptation of Fool Me Once follows Maya Stern as she attends the funeral of her husband, Joe Burkett, along with her daughter, Lily, mother-in-law, Judith, and the rest of their extended family, Neil and Caroline. Apparently, this huge personal loss to Maya happened a few days after the untimely death of her sister, Claire, who was married to Eddie and she had two kids with him, Abby and Daniel. Maya has two good friends, Eva and Shane. Eva gives Maya a nanny cam that’s concealed inside a digital photo frame so that she can keep an eye on Lily while she goes to work. Even though Maya is apprehensive about the device, because she already has Izabella (the babysitter) to take care of Lily, she sets it up in Lily’s bedroom. With that out of the way, Maya resumes her job as a flight instructor. Shane tries to tell her that it’s too soon, and Maya assures him that it’s her way of coping with Joe’s death. However, things go sideways when she watches the footage from the nanny cam and notices Joe sitting with Lily in her bedroom. When Izabella steals the footage, Maya has to trust her instincts and Sami’s detective skills to solve the surprising resurrection of Joe Burkett.
Over the course of eight tediously paced episodes, Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklenhurst cover a plethora of topics in Fool Me Once. With Maya’s past in the defense forces, the miniseries goes into the tricky topic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Joe’s past touches upon the never-ending aftereffects of bullying and how prestigious schools are ready to go to any extent to keep a squeaky-clean image. The foundations of the Burkett family are built on fraudulent grounds. In addition to Claire’s association with the Burketts, she has a whole subplot that is about frivolous romance and unwanted children. DS Kierce and Eddie are walking-talking commentaries on alcoholism, with Kierce providing additional commentary on being a victim of pharma fraud. Corey and the nanny cam are there to make us wonder about the pros and cons of the growth of technology. On top of all that, there’s the theme of revenge. Now, here’s the thing: I am not opposed to a show, a miniseries, or a film having way too many subplots in addition to the central plot. It can even take a bunch of detours and then return to the main story. But all of them have to either be engaging, or they have to complement the focal point of the narrative in a meaningful way; or else, what is the point? And, spoiler alert, the Netflix miniseries fails miserably in that aspect.
The stuff about PTSD doesn’t amount to anything. The bullying and the act of burying the lede on an administrative level aren’t fully explored. Although Fool Me Once wants to make a big deal out of the pharma fraud angle, it’s barely addressed in the concluding moments of the miniseries, especially when you compare it to the amount of time it spends on the mystery around Joe Burkett’s return. Talking about Joe Burkett, despite being so pivotal to the plot, he is hardly a character, and that’s why his actions feel way too contrived. The more you think about the “advent of technology” nonsense, the whole miniseries falls apart. An insane amount of running time is dedicated to DS Kierce, who is tangentially important. But I’m sure that Coben (who has written the bloody novel) and Danny (who is adapting it) know that it’s all about revenge. So, why not put more emphasis on that instead of going on a wild, inconsequential goose chase about dead bodies and ghosts and whatnot? What is the point of sacrificing the depth, motivations, and evolution of the characters for a bunch of Abbas-Mustan-level twists? And the funniest thing is that none of the twists are surprising enough to knock your socks off. They’re the most garden-variety revelations, which will probably shock someone whose first mystery-thriller miniseries ever will be Fool Me Once!
From a technical perspective, Fool Me Once is fine. I’m sure that it’s an uphill task to make an eight-episode miniseries out of a plot that can be summarized in an email. However, Nimer Rashed, David Moore, and the rest of the team present the miniseries in a professional fashion. The cinematography by Chris Sowden and Alistair Upcraft is all right. You can see everything properly, and the color grading is decent. There’s no semblance of style or flair, so weather your expectations accordingly. Steven Singleton and Gez Morris’s editing is invisible for the most part. However, in an attempt to highlight something important, they rely on these digital punch-ins, thereby making it look like a YouTube video or an Instagram reel instead of a Netflix miniseries. I know whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I’ll leave it up to the viewers to decide if they want their Netflix shows and films to look like YouTube videos or Instagram reels. The music by David Buckley and Luke Richards ranges between very annoying and mildly annoying. I didn’t hear any difference between the score of this miniseries and a weekly episode of C.I.D., or Crime Patrol, and I mean that in a derogatory way. That said, the thing that makes the viewing experience so infuriating is the pacing. If this miniseries had some sense of urgency, thrill, or intrigue, I certainly would’ve been more forgiving.
The performances in Fool Me Once are good across the board. Adeel Akhtar pretty much steals the show with his exhausted, funny, and melancholic act. I am not kidding (or being partial towards him because I love most of his previous work) when I say that if the show had been about him, his connection to the Burketts, and his need to take revenge on the Burketts, this would have been a ten out of ten miniseries. There are so many layers to his character’s arc, and Akhtar imbues this tragic man with so much pathos that it angers me to see it amount to nothing by the end. Akhtar’s chemistry with Dino Fetscher is really good. If the miniseries would’ve been a True Detective-esque, buddy cop show about pharmaceutical fraud, it would’ve been a ten out of ten miniseries, especially if it fleshed out Marty’s professional and personal life. But that’s treated in the blandest way imaginable. Michelle Keegan is okay as the poster girl of the miniseries. She is passionate and convincing in every scene she is in. Every member of the Burkett family is well-cast. I am a little miffed that Richard Armitage isn’t given much to do, largely because I am a fan of his work in The Hobbit trilogy and Castlevania. The rest of the cast, including all the child actors, do an admirable job. No bad apples to be found here, just victims of bad writing.
Every time I find out that a bad miniseries (movies or books, too) is an adaptation of a “best-selling novel,” I squarely put the blame on the readers who made that novel a hit in the first place. I think it’s my fault for thinking that book readers are way more intellectual than those who get their quota of entertainment from moving pictures. I should be aware of the fact that, much like fans of trashy movies and shows, there are fans of trashy books. The only issue, though, is that I don’t think bibliophiles are being subjected to novelizations of bad movies and shows, but cinephiles are being subjected to trashy movies and shows because of the popularity of horrible novels. So, can we please change that in 2024? Can we please let Fool Me Once be the exception and not the norm? If that’s a tall order, well, I’ll be here all year to take one for the team.