The basics of a reasonably good crime drama are buried somewhere in “Seven Seconds,” but there’s a lot of filler blanketing the most interesting elements.
Regina King, who plays a mother mourning the loss of her son, is the main draw in this 10-part drama set in Jersey City. Her top-notch work is always emotionally involving, and she does what she can with the limited scripts. But her character — and others — are stranded in a crime serial that tends to wallow in misery without offering anything particularly fresh to say about crime, race, or the justice system. And though the crime in question drives the narrative, “Seven Seconds” takes far too long to supply dramatic developments in the case, and most can be guessed far in advance.
Veena Sud, the creator of “Seven Seconds,” was the showrunner of “The Killing,” which was rightly criticized in its first season and beyond for its frustrating choices and meandering pace. Even so, there were some good episodes of “The Killing” before it went off the rails, and it ignited the careers of stars Joel Kinnaman and Mireille Enos. But “Seven Seconds” doesn’t display any more storytelling discipline than “The Killing” did, and Netflix’s habit of indulging overlong episodic running times plagues “Seven Seconds,” which turns into a chore despite a promising start.
There is one major difference between Sud’s two series: In “Seven Seconds,” we learn the identities of the victim and the culprit right away. Many a fine mystery has been constructed under similar circumstances, but when the biggest questions already have an answer, writers have to be more creative in order to sustain momentum and tension. But the characters in “Seven Seconds” never acquire enough depth to make their journeys compelling; instead, the show tends to repeat tics and details about them, rather than filling out their lives and agendas in complicated, satisfying ways. The atmosphere doesn’t help matters: the series’ limited visual palette of browns, blacks, and sleety blues eventually becomes frustrating, as does its tonal range, which runs from depressing to grim.
Much of the time, “Seven Seconds” echoes crime-driven TV narratives that explore the same array of subjects in a more watchable and thoughtful fashion. The corrupt cops at the heart of the case recall those of “The Shield” and “Training Day,” and when it comes to painting a picture of how the justice system grinds down those caught up by it as well as those who work for it, “The Night Of” and “The Wire” are much more satisfying. As for dramas that depict the impact of a wrenching crime on a specific community, there are even more solid choices, among them “Top of the Lake,” “Happy Valley,” “Broadchurch,” and “Rectify.”
But not enough of these kinds of ambitious crime dramas center on the experiences of women of color, as “Seven Seconds” does. Clare-Hope Ashitey brings vigor and presence to her role as an assistant district attorney who tries to pull herself out of a downward career spiral in order to help the bereaved family of King’s character. But the attempts to pair Ashitey’s character with an eccentric detective played by Michael Mosley do not provide the returns that Kinnaman and Enos supplied in the early days of “The Killing.”
One of the themes of “Seven Seconds” is that sloppiness and inconsistency can be as likely to lead to disappointing or even tragic outcomes as more malevolent intentions. It’s an important message to send; if only the delivery system for it wasn’t so messy and slow.