With Game of Thrones on the way back with a dragon-enriched prequel series, many of us will suddenly be in the mood once more for stirring tales of long-necked beasts losing their tempers in a variety of destructive ways. Being unfamiliar with Sarah Perry’s 2016 bestseller The Essex Serpent, I therefore went into Apple’s adaptation (Apple TV +, Friday) foolishly expecting at least one CGI monster before the end of the first episode.
But this, for better or worse, is serious, thinky telly where the serpents are metaphorical and the biggest special effect is the stubble dappling Tom Hiddleston’s A-lister chin.
He plays a worldly rector aghast when his flock starts to pay heed to rumours of a long-necked monster prowling his parish of Aldwinter in coastal Essex in 1893. Hiddleston is best known as charming anti-hero Loki in the Marvel films. Here, however, he is rigorously buttoned down as a man of reason opposite Claire Danes, who portrays Cora Seaborne, a well-to-do widow who has taken up amateur palaeontology following the death from throat cancer of her abusive husband.
With Netflix having gone all in on reality TV and Shonda Rhimes capers, Apple is one of the few remaining repositories of what used to be called “prestige television”. This, as we all know, means slow-moving fare featuring big names grappling with big ideas – and typically adapted from a middle-brow novel.
Danes's English accent is impeccable – even better than Joe Alwyn's in Conversations with Friends
All those boxes are ticked with The Essex Serpent. Now, obviously, this sort of thing isn’t for everyone. As one of those who likes their serpents very much nonfigurative and given to biting people’s heads off, I find myself constantly yelling “get on with it” while hoping that Hiddleston would suddenly transform into Loki, the whole fandango revealed to be a secret Marvel spin-off.
Yet it is solidly assembled. Danes’s English accent is impeccable – even better than Joe Alwyn’s in Conversations with Friends – and Hiddleston gives good “hunky vicar” as he casts meaningful gazes as Cora (despite being married to Clémence Poésy’s Stella). In other words, it has everything apart from the actual serpent – and, as reminder why prestige television is important and we should continue to watch it, adds up to a gripping gothic slow-burner.