Apple TV+ carries a strange mixture of content. It has high-budget costume dramas like The Essex Serpent alongside BBC documentaries in disguise like Prehistoric Planet (including a complementary Sir David Attenborough voice over), plus random comedies like Ted Lasso and Schmigadoon!
What on earth is Schmigadoon? How are you even meant to know what genre it is? My husband and I signed up for a free Apple TV+ trial so I could finally watch The Essex Serpent, which I thoroughly enjoyed and finished in four days, but couldn’t review because it’s already a year old. I will watch anything starring Claire Danes.
Among the recent releases on AppleTV+ is a domestic thriller in the style of Girl on the Train and Girl in the Window and Gone Girl—this one called The Last Thing He Told Me. Jennifer Garner stars and produces and does a perfectly reasonable job. I forgot how enjoyable she can be to watch—I haven’t seen much of her since Alias— but there’s something very studied about all of her performances.
Like Tom Cruise though, just get her running through cities and up wide stone steps and jumping over people’s bags and you’ve got a show. There’s a bit of that in the first three episodes of The Last Thing, and a lot of people looking at their phones, missing calls, getting texts, avoiding calls and failing to read texts. None of these characters are ever without their phones, which I guess is realistic. So it’s a bit surprising that a plot point hinges on the husband having a handwritten note delivered to his wife by a complete stranger. The note says, ‘PROTECT HER’. Why didn’t he text her that? Or call? The note appears many times in the first three episodes. Garner often gets it out and looks at it with sad eyes while wondering where her husband is.
The plot, based on Laura Dave’s bestselling novel (and part of the Reese Witherspoon Book Club) follows Hannah Hall, successful California wood sculptor and less successful stepmother to the teenaged Bailey. Most of the series involves Bailey rolling her eyes and making rude side comments to her perfectly nice stepmother. Angourie Rice plays Bailey in almost exactly the same fashion that she played Kate Winslet’s brooding daughter in Mare of Easttown.
Rice is 22 but still seems able to forge a career by playing awful teenagers. Like every edgy teen in films and TV, this one bears plaid flannels, streaks of dyed pink hair and baggy boyfriend jeans. This has become shorthand for a kid who’s ‘problematic but misunderstood’, the clothes taking the place of actual character development. So far Bailey’s development takes her from calling Garner names to admitting, ‘maybe she’s not the worst thing ever.’
I got side-tracked from the plot—Owen (played by Danish star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a smart, kind, funny tech start-up genius who goes on the run when his company is unmasked as a fraud. Everyone is calling it ‘the new Enron’, though it has a less sinister name and is known simply as, ‘The Shop’. Owen disappears as the FBI swarms the company building. He has time only to write a note to his wife (Garner) and daughter (Rice).
The daughter’s note says something like, ‘I love you’, or ‘It’s not what it looks like’. I can’t remember and so far it doesn’t matter. Although it may matter, because much of the rest of the plot depends on Bailey’s memories and perceptions of her father. Has the family ever been to Texas? Did they live there once? This is very important. Hannah flies out to Texas with Bailey in the hopes that she’ll remember something that will lead them to Owen. The show feels like an advert for Austin, Texas, luring jaded Californians in search of a better life, like new world pilgrims. I bet you anything Apple TV has a new studio in Austin in the pipeline.
So Bailey and Hannah go to Austin to try and trigger a memory, which does happen a couple of time—once in the Longhorns football stadium and once outside a local church. Meanwhile back in San Fran people keep breaking into Hannah’s perfect home—a kind of floating boat house with a terrace over the water and artfully arranged closets full of monochrome sweaters. Who are these people who keep breaking in?
Is it the FBI or the guy who claims to be a US Marshall? Is it somebody who knows something about Owen? It turns out to be Hannah’s lawyer. Why is everyone in Hannah’s life acting like criminals? They all keep telling her that Owen’s flight ‘doesn’t look good’, and then breaking into her house by night. So far I count four instances of break-ins. That’s more than one per episode. What are they looking for? The giant bag of money that Owen left Hannah? I forgot to mention that, he left them wads of cash in a sports bag. Nevermind that Hannah has a thriving business of her own. Surely she doesn’t need such a gratuitous amount of money—and anyway, it looks suspicious.
Throughout all this Hannah remains steadfast in her conviction that Owen is innocent, that he knows nothing of his company’s fraud. At the beginning of the first episode, however, Hannah stamps on her phone with her foot, shattering the image of her and Owen on the home screen. So presumably the next episodes will see Hannah go through a dark phase of distrust and remorse, and then emerge from the hero’s journey having won her stepdaughter’s approval, no matter what happens to the husband. If this is the only reward at the end of all this trouble I can’t see that it will be worth it, for Hannah or for us. Bailey the stepdaughter is a deeply unappealing character—she has four more episodes to prove me wrong.