“Limetown” is about as meta on the persistent true crime phenomenon as it gets. The new Facebook Watch drama, based on Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie’s 2015 scripted podcast, follows a radio reporter who’s chasing down an unsolved mystery, recording what’s essentially a podcast all the while. (Though the original podcast unfolds in the vein of a radio drama, it’s not a coincidence that “Limetown” debuted a year after “Serial.”) Now, the podcast within a podcast has become a podcast within a TV show based on a podcast — a dizzying trajectory, but one that nonetheless appears to suit “Limetown” well.
The key difference between “Limetown” and “Serial,” however, is that Lia Haddock (executive producer Jessica Biel) isn’t trying to dig into a story she believes may be misunderstood, but one that no one has ever understood. Both the podcast and show open 15 years after the residents of Limetown, an entire makeshift community of scientists and researchers, vanished without a trace. Lia’s beloved uncle (played in flashbacks by Stanley Tucci) is among the missing; Lia of the present day is a jaded, singleminded workaholic who’s seemingly been haunted by this tragedy all her life. The show makes an early attempt to tie the world moving on from Limetown to the very real 24/7 news cycle that’s shortened our attention spans for tragedy, but the first two episodes largely focus on Lia’s personal connection to the case rather than its potentially global implications.
Determined lone wolf Lea will be an incredibly familiar archetype to anyone even vaguely into mysteries, a fact that “Limetown” embraces. As far as we know, in fact, Lia doesn’t have much in her life that Limetown and her pursuit of answers haven’t touched in some way. And yet Biel’s Lia isn’t the hard-drinking mess of a reporter we’ve grown accustomed to seeing onscreen. She’s focused and meticulous, somehow both too blunt and unsettlingly opaque. (One could even describe her as “competent,” making the moment when her phone rings during a crucial interview even more jarring than possibly intended.)
That the show’s most developed character barely exists outside the case should be more of an obvious narrative red flag than it ends up being in the early outing. A big point in favor of “Limetown” is that it eschews dramas’ traditional hourlong runtime for a tighter half-hour that leaves little room for any B or C stories too far afield from the main mystery anyway. (The first pair of episodes essentially act as a pilot split into two parts, but the abbreviated episode length plus the cliffhangers that practically scream “dun dun dun” are probably a more solid combination for a streaming service wanting to retain curious viewers.) And despite the density of the story she has to get through per episode, director Rebecca Thomas patiently builds a steady, creeping unease that rarely lets up.
Herein lies the most compelling strength of “Limetown.” Though it’s a more straightforward adaptation of its podcast source material than, say, Amazon’s “Homecoming,” it always feels slightly off-kilter in a way that suits its thriller roots. Its characters waver on a thin edge, like a record needle straying off the track. By the time a mysterious new witness (Kelly Jenrette) shifts the show into a higher gear by making her presence known, “Limetown” is so taut with tension that I both craved and dreaded its inevitable snap.
The first two episodes of “Limetown” had its world premiere Friday, September 6 at the Toronto International Film Festival, and will drop Wednesday, October 16 on Facebook Watch.