“Meadowlands” owes a more-than-passing debt to Patrick McGoohan’s paranoid 1960s classic “The Prisoner,” albeit adding a family twist that won’t remind anybody of “Father Knows Best.” Focusing on two parents and their 17-year-old twins awkwardly sequestered in a mysterious, primary-colored English hamlet, this exceedingly dark eight-part series works largely thanks to the stellar combination of David Morrissey and Lucy Cohu as the central couple. Even after four episodes, the show’s broader objectives remain fuzzy, but along the way, it provides another grimly bent view of family drama tonally reminiscent of FX’s “The Riches.”
It’s not entirely clear what Danny Brogan (Morrissey) did that bought him this new name, identity and one-way ticket to Meadowlands — a creepy town resembling a movie backlot that consists of those in witness protection. All Danny knows is that he wants to keep his family safe, and “Out there, nothing good can happen.”
Not much good seems likely to happen in the funhouse mirror ride that is Meadowlands, either, from the lovelorn middle-aged neighbor (Melanie Hill) across the street to the creepy handyman (Tom Hardy) to the even creepier gynecologist (Tristan Gemmill) — who, despite being married, immediately tells Danny’s wife Evelyn (Cohu) that he loves her.
Then again, no one will confuse the Brogans with “7th Heaven.” Danny and Evelyn’s relationship is tumultuous at best, while daughter Zoe (Felicity Jones) is a shameless flirt with a ’60s hairdo, and twin Mark (Harry Treadaway) is an initially nonverbal autistic who insists on wearing women’s gloves. And they’re the relatively normal ones in town.
As strange as “Meadowlands” is, a few elements feel overly familiar and predictable, from the gauzy flashbacks that hint obliquely at Danny’s past to deviant sexual encounters that at times feel forced. Yes, it’s nice to be tantalized, but without greater understanding of these characters’ history, the behavior is so consistently arch it begins to seem slightly gratuitous.
That said, Morrissey and Cohu — veterans of the classy BBC America productions “Viva Blackpool” and “The Queen’s Sister,” respectively — are extremely compelling performers, the kind you’d happily watch read the morning paper. There’s a persistent sense of menace surrounding him and pain in her, and they receive solid support from both the large cast and the town’s surreal design, which suggests there may be something unusual, bordering on mystical, maintaining Meadowlands’ buffer against the outside world.
In a way, the show also fits well with Showtime’s character-driven, family-based series such as “Brotherhood” and “Weeds,” which for whatever reason have been executed better than the pay net’s more promotable but less satisfying high-concept fare like “The Tudors” — which started well but gradually lost steam — and “Sleeper Cell,” a simpleminded spin on terrorism.
Ultimately, “Meadowlands” (which will be affixed with the equally nondescriptive title “Cape Wrath” in the U.K.) toes a slippery line — offering not only sparse clues as to where it’s heading, but failing to divulge where it is. So far, though, the occupants succeed in making its pleasures a little bit like reality TV — more about the journey than the destination.