Hulu’s lackluster ‘The Sister’ fails to thrill

Photo from the series, "The Sister"
Hulu/Courtesy

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

“The Sister” opens with an eerie couplet of scenes that seem to promise a good yarn. In 2013, a haunted Nathan (Russell Tovey) halts a suicide attempt after he spots Holly (Amrita Acharia) on the television, tearfully speaking at a press conference about her missing sister Elise (Simone Ashley). Seven years later — on a dark and stormy night, of course — Nathan’s lounging in the posh house he shares with now-wife Holly when he’s interrupted by a knock on the door. In waltzes lank-haired creep Bob Morrow (Bertie Carvel), who requests Nathan’s help with exhuming Elise’s body from the woods where the duo buried it years prior.

This concise, chilling set-up is unfortunately the closest this tale comes to sound narrative architecture. Like other limited series that hanker for the pompous designation of “prestige TV,” “The Sister” bungles a simple pitch with a needlessly bloated runtime and empty formal embellishments. The series, adapted by Neil Cross from his novel “Burial,” muffles its driving mystery with continuous timeline shifts; the details of Elise’s death are sluggishly parceled out in between flashbacks to Nathan’s courtship of Holly and his present-day struggle to keep her from discovering his ghoulish secret.

Nathan’s guilt over the unforgivably seedy decision to insert himself into Holly’s life should be the series’ emotional flashpoint, but the character is reduced to little more than a mopey plot vessel. Cross’ unfocused script corners Tovey, a usually nimble character actor, into a performance that mostly consists of lengthy stares into the middle distance. In lieu of dialogic explication, the series uses Nathan’s predicament as fodder for tedious moments of dramatic irony. In one episode, Holly muses that her sister “approves of the boy she married”; in another, the camera is overly fond of lingering on a stairwell where a framed photo of Elise sits next to Nathan and Holly’s wedding photo.

Much of “The Sister,” especially the more restrained first half, relies on familiar tools for building tension. The show’s glossy visual language, defined by scenes soaked in dim blue hues and close-ups of bereaved faces, feels indisputably utilitarian, but does its due diligence in lending atmosphere to the macabre backdrop of Elise’s death. A spooky twist — Bob is a disgraced paranormal expert, and believes Elise is haunting him — gives rise to a couple of gravelly monologues about ghostly happenings.

It’s easy to invest in such tricks at first, but they run thin as the story unspools. The supposed haunting doesn’t amount to more than a few lazy bumps in the night, and the repetitive flashbacks quickly lose their ability to jolt. Once the series finally trots out its closing revelations, it becomes clear that its temporal digressions and high-minded hemming and hawing are simply the bedrock for a series of anticlimaxes. Though it apes the aesthetic of cerebral thrillers, “The Sister”more closely resembles a Lifetime movie, with a drawn-out conclusion that’s more soapy than sinister.

Not every mystery needs to have an impossibly complex solution — that would be insufferable — but “The Sister” delays gratification to the point where audiences are unlikely to expect anything less. Between its dull protagonist and meandering plot, there’s little to look forward to beyond the next reveal; the series never has the conviction to dig into the ethical dilemmas it poses, resulting in a sense of weightlessness it never fully shakes off. In this way, “The Sister” is faithful to its pulpy paperback source material: diverting enough for now, but all too easy to forget once you close the back cover.

Contact Grace Orriss at [email protected]. Tweet her at @graceorriss.