The case of Charles Sobhraj seems perfect for the age of the true-crime dramatization. Sobhraj, currently incarcerated in Nepal, was a serial murderer in the 1970s, preying especially upon Western travelers on the so-called Hippie Trail in Asia. His notoriety intersects with the anxieties of his era, and his deeds demonstrate an almost boundless capacity for cruelty and compartmentalization: Both of these facts would seem to serve a genre that seeks within stories from the past ways of understanding our times and ourselves.
“The Serpent,” a limited series appearing on Netflix after running on BBC One earlier this year, unfortunately never gets there. Through the writing of Richard Warlow and Toby Finlay, we are given an intriguing — if at times somewhat generic-feeling — look into the world of seekers and believers trying to find themselves between Kathmandu and Bangkok, and we see that world preyed on by an archvillain whose skillfulness has its pleasures but whose soul remains obscured. “The Serpent,” true to its title, treats Sobhraj as something more dangerous and otherwise less than human, but in doing so, it leaves the possibility of real insight behind.
One issue is the scrambled timeline, which slices between Sobhraj’s crimes and the effort to stop him. Intercutting between crime and punishment — with frequent on-screen legends telling us how many months or years have elapsed — makes an eight-hour series feel longer and diminishes the volume of story that it’s working with. The technique reduces practically every incident into a vignette and cuts short the amount of sustained time we spend in the presence of Sobhraj (played by Tahar Rahim). His crimes begin to seem formulaic, which is true of a serial killer, perhaps. But Sobhraj’s ennui becomes our own, sapping the series of a raw tension that should be the first thing it gets right. Directors Tom Shankland and Hans Herbots have conjured atmosphere only to let it slip away. The tendency of “The Serpent” to slither from point to point without letting us get situated feels not so much artful as the case of a show that is not confident about the power and potency of its material.
The actors work hard to convince us of the story’s worth. As Sobhraj, Rahim is very fine: Recently the lead in the film “The Mauritanian,” he is an insinuating presence, lending enough oleaginous charm to his character to make clear why his victims were taken in. Sobhraj often appeared first to his quarries as a helper or a savior figure, providing them assistance or offering them the chance to share in profits from gems he hoped to offload. Rahim is an effective master of disguise — he shifts his look to evade detection, and in what is both a suitable metaphor for his constant morphing and a satisfying process to watch, doctors passports with ease. But his best costume is the pretense of decency. When the mask falls — as, for instance, when he turns on one of his closest associates (Amesh Edireweera) — it’s terrifying.
As his girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc, Jenna Coleman gives the series’ best and longest look at the sort of person swept into Sobhraj’s orbit, ensorcelled by his air of confidence and of wealth but allowed to live, by some good fortune or by Sobhraj sensing that her amorality comes in a shape similar to his. One of the show’s few genuinely amusing uses of its intercutting is holding on her face as she swears off being Sobhraj’s “accomplice” — cut to three months later, and she’s grinning by the pool, buoyed by his wealth and the Bonnie-and-Clyde adventurism of being a pair against the world.
But what were Sobhraj and Leclerc against? In its consideration of a criminal whose vicious imagination lacks a clear origin, the show faces a challenge similar to Ryan Murphy’s 2018 limited series about Andrew Cunanan. Here, it’s all demonstration, little explanation: We get a crystalline sense of Sobhraj’s distaste for the hippie lifestyle, rendering aesthetic judgments through death. But he also appears to disdain the bourgeoisie — we get glimpses, more substantial as the show progresses, into the family life that may have fueled the early stages of Sobhraj’s rage, with the criminal telling a pious family member “I’m smarter than Christ.” His nihilism makes for an intriguing enough case study for a while, and an interesting counterpoint to the do-gooders trying to stop him (including his neighbors, played by Mathilde Warnier and Grégoire Isvarine, and a pair of husband-wife diplomats, played by Billy Howle and Ellie Bamber).
But if it doesn’t need to explain, “The Serpent” needs to do more to draw us in. As it becomes evident that fundamental questions about Sobhraj’s temperament and decision-making are beyond this series’ grasp, the temporal leaps start to seem like distraction more than edification. Sobhraj is, by the end, an ably played monster who did things at a certain time, with neither man nor time convincingly explored beyond depiction.
“The Serpent” premieres on Netflix April 2.