The psychological melodrama “Penance” is, by turns, creepy, silly, predictable and overwrought — and would fit snugly into Lifetime’s over-the-top “women-in-jeopardy” lineup.
The three-part series, premiering Thursday on Sundance Now, first aired in March on England’s Channel 5 network. So it’s got a leg up on its American genre counterpart, since the Brits also seem to do even turgid dramas just a little bit better.
Created by Kate O’Riordan, upon whose 2016 book it’s based, “Penance” revolves around the Douglas family — estranged parents Rosalie (Julie Graham) and Luke (Neil Morrissey) and teenage daughter Maddie (Tallulah Greive). The series opens at Christmas with the death of Rosalie and Luke’s older son, Rob, who drowned in Thailand while hanging on the beach with some friends — strange, since he was a champion swimmer not known for taking risks.
Rob’s death, understandably, throws the entire family into a spiral of depression, and when Rosalie and Maddie go for grief-therapy group counseling, they meet Jed (Nico Miraleggro), who’s Maddie’s age. He was orphaned as a youngster after his parents were killed in a car crash and was raised by his “Nan,” whose death has shaken him up. As quickly as you can say “I know where this is going,” Jed and Maddie hit it off and “Penance” quickly shifts into overdrive. By the end of Episode 1, Jed is shirtless and dripping wet (of course he is) and making a move on Rosalie, who figures her wild emotional swings are part-and-parcel of grieving Rob’s loss. Jed has lost a “Nan”/mother figure and she’s lost her son. Cue the unsubtle Freudian symbolism.
The series ratchets up the melodrama in Episode 2 when other creepy parts of Jed’s past are revealed. But no spoilers here, and I suspect you can guess the bat-s–t-crazy rail on which this narrative train is headed.
Graham, in particular, delivers a strong, nuanced performance as Rosalie, who never denies her feelings toward Jed while being aware of her weaknesses during her time of grief. Greive does a nice job portraying a teenage romantic who’s head-over-heels in love with her first serious boyfriend — and often, as so often happens, at odds with her mother — while Miraleggro hits the mark as the psycho-in-waiting: charming, astute at playing mind games and bending others to his will.
While “Penance” often veers into overheated territory, O’Riordan knows her audience and sticks to the tried-and-true thriller formula — adding some nice touches along the way.
Lifetime, the leader in primetime soapy melodrama, could learn a thing or two from its British cousins.
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