Creators: Zak Akers and Skip Bronkie
Starring: Jessica Biel, Stanley Tucci, Sherri Saum, Omar Elba, Alessandro Juliani, Louis Ferreira, Marlee Matlin, Sheryl Lee, Janet Kidder, Kandyse McClure, John Beasley, Hiro Kanagawa, Kelly Jenrette, Vera Frederickson
Release Date: 2019
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
There's a scene that comes late in Facebook Watch's thriller series Limetown where an actress is called upon to play a character who's acting. You know those scenes. A performance within a performance, in this case with her character withholding information someone else doesn't have, but the audience does. And it's a guilty, self conscious performance. Not from the actress, but the character, which is how it should be since characters are rarely capable of believable acting.
The performer doing it is Jessica Biel, who we're learning is very much an excellent actress, more so since finding her lane in dark, psychological TV dramas like 2018's The Sinner, which earned her an Emmy nomination. Since the talent was always there, even if the quality of projects weren't, she started developing her own and hasn't looked back, with viewers reaping the benefits. That series centered around a giant mystery many doubted could be satisfactorily paid off, until it was, in a revelatory gut punch of an episode that ranks alongside the most exciting hours of dramatic television in years.
The series is both at an advantage and disadvantage in having to show rather than tell everything, since what's shown could easily fall short of our imaginations. Then again, so can anything. Those who haven't listened to the podcast won't be lost and have the added benefit of a clean slate, while the many that did will find it remains faithful to and improves upon it in welcome ways. But the big takeaway is that it's riskier, specifically in regards to the actions of its central character, a complex, polarizing female anti-hero sure to split audiences. And much like The Sinner, Biel takes her on a dark journey toward the truth, culminating in a season finale that lays all its cards on the table to reveal an awful lot of answers, even if our protagonist proves emotionally unequipped to handle them.
Lia Haddock (Biel) grew up in a household where she got used to tuning out the noise, escaping to her room with a tape recorder to avoid the sounds of her parents fighting. But she soon found a captive audience in her uncle, Emile (Stanley Tucci), a quite, reserved man who would often stand in as Lia's interview subject, encouraging her to use her imagination in the wildest ways possible. That is until one day Emile left for a mystery trip and never returned, forcing Lia to grow up without her beloved uncle. And whatever scenario her childhood imagination conjured up about his whereabouts couldn't ever come close to matching the real story that would occur in a place called Limetown in 2003.
With pressure mounting from her editor, Gina (Sherri Saum) to can the story if she can't find any leads, Lia's given a hapless partner in Mark (Omar Elba), who tries keep her honest and on task as surviving Limetown residents begin emerging from the shadows over a decade after disappearing. Now they want to talk. Sort of. And with conditions. But doing so puts their lives and Lia's in immediate danger, each interview bringing her dangerously close to the truth of what happened. Even if the real question just may be how far she'll willing to go to get it.
Broken into 10 half-hour episodes all directed by Rebecca Thomas, the format seamlessly synchronizes with a story that needs to gradually unspool information, yet do it at a fairly rapid pace, one witness and clue at a time. When alternating between Lia's present-day interviews with these people and flashbacks of their time in the village, the pieces come together. And many of the town-set scenes and the subjects' explanations of them end up being an acting showcase for supporting players such as Kelly Jenrette, Louis Ferreira, John Beasley, and Marlee Matlin, each of whom are afforded the opportunity to portray two variations on their characters in different timelines.
Ultimately, this is Lia's story, or rather it becomes that when the podcaster's obsession starts to reveal more about her own emotional trauma stemming from her uncle's disappearance than the overarching Limetown mystery. They're not exactly one in the same. Who Lia is at her core becomes the biggest and most rewarding deviation from the podcast, as she evolves into someone who may not be worth rooting for anymore, manipulating and blackmailing to get to the truth regardless of how many more die in the process.
Lia's abject denial in the face of this gets scary enough that we eventually understand the true purpose of the goofy Mark character beyond the writers' need to give her someone to bounce theories off and provide comic relief. He's there to keep her sane, providing a rational moral compass as it becomes clearer hers is breaking. We don't fully grasp the extent of Lia's obsession until the final few episodes which find her going off the deep end in ways that are crazily unsettling. Better still is the argument that this proves she truly was the only person capable of making the sacrifices necessary to see this investigation through to its end.
With her bob haircut frequently buried under a hoodie or knit hat, wearing baggy clothes and looking as if she hasn't slept for days, Lia initially seems at surface level to be an entirely desexualized character. That is until we realize, in jarring ways, this isn't the case at all and her desires provide as much of an outlet as her work. She's a lesbian, even if that labeling seems pointless in the face of everything else Lia's carrying around, which the actress reveals to us in carefully modulated doses throughout. Like her troubled relationship with her estranged mother (played by Laura Palmer herself, Sheryl Lee). It's a high-wire, anxiety-ridden performance that perfectly compliments Stanley Tucci's calming, detached presence in the flashbacks opposite a young, impressionable Lia. The true measure of that impact is felt in the present-day scenes every time her adult counterpart hits a wall in the investigation and a depressing sense of hopelessness washes over Biel's face. She doesn't have to say anything. We get it.
The finale ("Answers") delivers all the unsettling revelations viewers have been waiting on, while supplying literal clock-ticking suspense when Lia comes face-to-face with her most important witness, an ex Limetown administrator played with terrifying matter-of-factness by Janet Kidder. It's basically a clinic on how skilled people can be at completely compartmentalizing whatever they wish, regardless of the consequences. The shock comes not so much in hearing about what caused the mess that is Limetown, but seeing it depicted on screen in painstaking, almost over-analytic detail from the perspective of someone incapable of framing it any other way.