2.5 out of 5 stars

Adapted from his 2016 novel, Harlan Coben’s latest Netflix miniseries, Fool Me Once, serves up thrills familiar to Coben fans while introducing unexpected plot twists. However, some of these deviations from the source material lead to misdirected payoffs that may leave viewers frustrated by the eight-episode conclusion.

Maya Stern (Michelle Keegan) is an ex-military helicopter pilot whose husband, Joe Burkett (Richard Armitage), has just been murdered. His killers were never found and they remain at large. Left to care for their young daughter by herself, she’s gifted a nanny cam by a concerned friend. Then, one day, while reviewing footage, she spots Joe seemingly alive and well. The camera shows him walking into their daughter’s playroom like a ghost, or perhaps a man who was never dead to begin with. Disturbed by this occurrence, she searches for the man she thought was long gone, digging up not only old wounds but also long-buried secrets.

From the outset, Fool Me Once has all the makings of a binge-worthy series. Its compelling plot takes unexpected turns, with each episode ending on a cliffhanger designed to propel the story forward. For the most part, it delivers on the genre’s basic expectations. However, while seemingly poised to be a straightforward mystery, Fool Me Once stumbles due to several production flaws that prevent it from reaching the same heights as Coben’s previous adaptations.

Coben’s books have become a regular fixture on Netflix, starting with Safe (2018), which starred Michael C. Hall, fresh off his iconic role in Dexter (2006-2013). And there’s good reason for it. He’s not just one of the world’s most prominent crime writers because he throws in a shocking final twist. It’s the combination of an enticing story, captivating intrigue, and stellar performances that keeps us hooked and coming back for more. His work consistently delivers the thrilling escape we crave—a well-produced mystery with shades of drama that never disappoints.

His characters frequently grapple with unexpected personal tragedies, confronting the darkest facets of crime and its raw consequences. Yet, they tirelessly chase answers, no matter how dark things turn out to be in the end. His gripping plots embrace darkness, propelled by the potent desires of his characters, navigating even the roughest terrain with captivating depth. Satisfying conclusions are commonplace, leaving audiences yearning for a second season (though his standalone adaptations mostly remain limited series). In the realm of mysteries, his straightforward style, intricate conspiracies, and commercially alluring narratives outshine most competitors. This often reflects a dedicated production team, adept at delivering the desired thrills without missing a beat, backed by formulaic source material proven to captivate readers.

However, Fool Me Once occasionally stumbles in finding a clear direction. Multiple narrative threads arise simultaneously, making them challenging to follow. Maya’s search for answers to Joe’s sudden reappearance throws her back to her sister’s unsolved murder years ago. The key dramatic question—“Could these be connected?”—keeps us hooked. The stakes lie in whether it can answer this question convincingly without stretching audience credulity or succumbing to inconsistencies that leave audiences with mixed feelings.

Keegan’s performance showcases moments of adeptness in holding the story together. She effectively portrays Maya as a deeply aggrieved woman hellbent on unearthing the truth behind her sister’s murder. However, there are instances where Keegan seems to grapple with fully comprehending the intricacies of Maya’s motives. Beyond seeking personal closure, Maya also aims to provide clarity and comfort to her brother-in-law, niece, and nephew.

Ultimately, this inconsistency in character motivation is one of the script’s major flaws. Melodramatic dialogue and a tangled web of narrative threads often hinder the performances, potentially leaving audiences with the impression that not only the acting but also the overall tone lacks consistency and feels formulaic.

While Adeel Akhtar delivers a competent performance, it’s the character of Detective Sami Kierce that lets him down. Admittedly, portraying an anxiety-stricken cop plagued by blackouts during investigations might be a daunting task even for seasoned actors. The challenge lies in conveying Kierce’s blackouts during suspect chases and arrests as emotionally impactful, and don’t descend into the realm of the absurd or exaggerated.

Like other characters, Kierce, as a detective, sometimes appears underutilised in aiding Maya’s investigation. While his anxieties about fatherhood and marriage are understandable, they occasionally distract from the central plot when viewers expect progress on Joe’s return or Maya’s sister’s murder.

Throughout the series, Joe Burkett has fewer scenes and dialogue lines than expected. Conversely, two previous Coben adaptations, Stay Close (2021) and The Stranger (2020), showcased Armitage’s leading-man abilities. Here, however, it feels as though his talent and experience could have been utilized to a greater extent. The narrative relies on flashbacks to reveal the true intentions of key characters, though they shift our allegiances away from central characters and storylines. As intriguing and dramatic as several of the plots may seem, they’re used to address the question of grief surrounding unsolved murders of family members, which is an affecting topic.  

Celebrated screenwriter David Brocklehurst, whose exceptional screenplays for Safe and The Stranger captivated audiences, tackles the task of interweaving the murders with aplomb, channelling author Harlan Coben’s trademark unexpected twists that keep viewers guessing. However, despite Brocklehurst’s deft hand, some inconsistencies emerge later in the series, inconsistencies that, while undoubtedly surprising, leave viewers questioning whether the show’s intriguing setup truly earns its conclusion.

Ultimately, Fool Me Once remains a binge-worthy distraction, keeping us engaged and intrigued throughout. But it’s always up to the viewer to decide how many times they’ve been fooled. 


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Cast & Crew

writers: David Brocklehurst, Charlotte Coben, Yemi Oyefuwa, Nina Metivier & Tom Farrelly (based on the novel by Harlon Coben).
directors: David Moore & Nimer Rashed.
starring: Michelle Keegan, Richard Armitage, Adeel Akhtar, Joanna Lumley, Dino Fetscher, Emmett J. Scanlon, Joe Armstrong, Marcus Garvey & Jade Anouka.