Thinly drawn and skimpy on the details, “Tatau” works as a modest mystery/picturesque travelogue, provided one can get past the hackneyed premise and almost complete lack of character establishment. Two twentysomething pals from London have opted to seek fun and adventure in the Cook Islands (whose tourism bureau could certainly do a whole lot worse), before experimenting with a hallucinogen that triggers unexpected consequences in one of them. What follows is a mildly watchable thriller, assuming viewers don’t dwell too much on the white-savior-in-exotic-locale undertones, with a hint of Maori mysticism woven throughout the script by creator Richard Zajdlic.
In no time flat, Kyle (Joe Layton) and Budgie (Theo Barklem-Biggs) have silently shed their white shirts and office attire for swim shorts, soaking up island sun. As we meet them, in fact, they’re sucking down a drink with mysterious properties provided by the shady Dries (Barry Atsma), triggering a series of realistic visions in Kyle, who awakens both naked and unnerved.
Later, Kyle goes snorkeling, and sees the same alluring woman (Shushila Takao) he witnessed in his drug-addled state floating dead in the water, tethered to the reef below. Yet when he returns with the authorities, she’s gone — a development Budgie urges him to write off as a bad flashback, but one that Kyle, who sports an elaborate tattoo that he dreamt up, but can’t explain, refuses to let go.
From there, “Tatau’s” first two episodes yield some eerie moments and unexpected twists that shouldn’t be spoiled, as Kyle seeks to plead his case to anyone who might listen, including the pictured girl’s skeptical father (Temuera Morrison, recognizable to “Star Wars” fans as Jango Fett) and family. The premiere’s closing moment, in fact, paves the way both for the second hour and the slightly “X-Files”-like arc this eight-episode series will take.
Directed by Wayne Yip, “Tatau” moves briskly enough, and it’s undeniably pretty to look at. The central characters, however, are a nondescript pair straight out of “Hapless Westerners in a strange new world,” and Zajdlic has done them no favors by investing scant energy in making them any less generic before tossing these wide-eyed waifs into paradise and diving into the story.
Paired with the return of “Orphan Black,” this British-New Zealand co-production for BBC Three actually has the feel of a slightly darker teatime show, one in which atmosphere is expected to partly trump the material’s thinness. That might work, albeit on an extremely minor scale, given what remains unanswered regarding Kyle’s vision; still, despite all that lush scenery, “Tatau” just doesn’t leave enough of an impression to get under one’s skin.