November 15, 2022

Chilling Thriller “1899” Presents a Compelling, Layered Mystery (Review)

I’ve only seen a few episodes of Lost, but its massive pop culture presence that has resounded for almost two decades tells me almost everything I need to know. The very act of continuing a mystery-based TV series on a season-by-season basis, constantly introducing new factors while under pressure to both solve smaller quandaries and hinting towards a satisfying resolution to the overarching questions is not as sustainable as one might think. The conclusion of Lost (as much as I've heard) does not do six seasons of buildup the justice it deserved, and I feel like it taught valuable lessons to the television writing community on how to structure a story like this.

Image courtesy of Netflix

1899, an ambitious new series from Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar (the creators of Dark) that comes to us as part of their overall deal with Netflix. It establishes a compelling mystery right off the bat, as the migrant passengers of a steamship headed towards New York City encounter the ship’s abandoned sister vessel, thought to be lost at sea.

The ship is chock-full of an international ensemble of varied characters, and at the very center of it all is English doctor Maura Franklin (Emily Beecham), whose connections with the newfound ship run deeper than anyone suspects. She’s not the only one with secrets, though; with each new language comes a new secret, and a unique reason to hide. In fact, a concern I had early on was that there may be too many characters, as the series crept toward the point of spreading itself too thin over so many storylines. Each character has a part to play, though, and is individualized within the narrative, so the heavy influx of new faces has a reason. Whether it’s all headed for a satisfying payoff is still up in the air.

The pilot hooked me right off the bat, which is a good sign going forward. Over the course of the next few episodes, 1899 takes a whole host of left turns, all while maintaining a justifiably slow narrative that continues to build the quiet tension and introduce new factors that will certainly prove to be important later on. At a certain point, I grew worried that it was introducing more mysteries than it has the ability and time to answer, but it’s so engaging that I feel inclined to trust the direction that the show is going. Perhaps it will work best as a miniseries, or maybe there’s more story to tell in the future. Only time will tell.

Image courtesy of Netflix

It’s also been a while since I’ve seen a show be so confident with its production design and atmosphere. It’s period-accurate while also not being ashamed of its anachronisms (many of them have a story purpose, in fact), and the costumes are done fantastically well in the way that they’re not meant to be the focus. The mood is drab and gray, and the production reflects that. Every behind-the-scenes aspect seems to be working in perfect communication, which is necessary for a show with so many moving parts.

1899 starts off strong, and continues its reliable current through its first season. Every episode ends with a plot-specific song with a massive tease for what’s coming next, and I appreciate the choice to use “White Rabbit” as the main title theme — it hints at larger, cerebral implications beyond what we’ve seen so far, as if there’s always something deeper and more sinister lurking behind the curtain. The mystery keeps building as the season treks on, and I promise, the payoff and answers are worth it.

Image courtesy of Netflix

Is it a new
Lost? I can’t confidently say, but I definitely won't complain about the direction it’s going. It speaks disturbingly well to the brutality of human nature under duress, which the language barrier certainly doesn’t help (German, English, Spanish, French, Polish, Danish, Portuguese, Cantonese and Japanese are all spoken across the primary cast), and kept me hooked all the way through. Whether it earns more praise or infamy in the pop culture zeitgeist remains to be seen.

1899 premieres November 17 on Netflix. Six episodes were screened for this review.

1 comment:

  1. Get to the end of season 1 and THEN tell me it's layered and complex.