Warning: This contains mild spoilers.
“I’ve just gone to see me dad.” Those are the last words recorded by Jody, in a video to her mum, Claire (Suranne Jones). So when she disappears, her dad, Nelly (Lennie James), is naturally the first suspect. Estranged from the 13-year-old girl, he’s a loser, a barfly, the kind of man everyone on his South London housing estate knows. He’s also been receiving messages from her, and got a phone call from her just before she went missing. But Nelly, while far from the best guy in the world, is innocent – and so he sets off on his own investigation to find the person who’s abducted, or possibly even killed, his daughter.
It’s a premise that might sound familiar, but Save Me proves wonderfully unique at every turn. A large part of that comes down to the script, which is written by James himself. After impressing repeatedly with his sincere turn as Morgan in The Walking Dead, he brings that same authenticity to his screenplay, which twists and turns with the best detective dramas, but never lets plot get in the way of character.
Nelly soon discovers that someone has been pretending to be him online to lure Jody into meeting him, someone who knows the most intimate details that would convince her. The series takes that attention to detail with all its characters, particularly honing in on three central adults caught up in the tragedy. Alongside Nelly, there’s his ex-wife, Claire (Suranne Jones), who is angry, desperate, yet surprisingly composed, willing to go to any length to get back her daughter, even as she suspects that Nelly is really innocent. And between them both is Melon, Nelly’s best friend (Stephen Graham), who has his own dark secrets.
Melon’s potential knowledge of the local Deptford underworld is where Save Me really excels. Stuck in a moral quagmire, he’s trying to do the right thing by his mate – a conflicted man in a compromising situation, whose willingness to compromise himself is both a strength and a disturbing flaw. Graham plays him just right, able to elicit sympathy as well as disgust, often in the same scene, and he opens up a door to a grimy, grim storyline that doesn’t flinch. That bleak streak may well upset some viewers, but Save Me’s strength lies in the fact that it’s not afraid to do so – where some TV series might settle for being a formulaic, but effective thriller, Save Me keeps scraping back the layers of its carefully built world and people to uncover disturbing, seedy surprises.
Director Nick Murphy, who impressed with The Awakening back in 2011 and has since drawn naturalistic performances from such actors as Paul Bettany and James Nesbitt in a variety of projects, is a perfect match for the material. He has a knack for raw emotion and understated world-building, and both add weight to Save Me’s careful pacing and gentle depths. He paints a portrait of a London that is more than gritty urban style, seeing past the council estate surface to capture pensioners having fun at bus stops and slow-motion exercise in the concrete courtyards. There’s a constant class tension at work, between Nelly and the young locals in The Palm Tree, his pub where lock-ins are routine every night, and even in the remnants of affection between Nelly and the middle-class Claire. Throw in Susan Lynch as a believable barmaid and some dogged, cynical cops and you have a diverse tapestry of convincingly broken humans, which rings true down to even the smallest detail, such as Nelly’s yellow coat or Jody’s grandma’s saltfish dumplings.
Even Nelly himself is a complex mix of good and bad, drinking too much, and playing several women off against each other. In anyone else’s hands, he might be loathsome or just cheesy, but James’ underplayed presence is the heart of the whole piece, going from a smooth talker to a speechless mess over the course of six heart-wrenching hours. With dialogue that doesn’t sound forced – “You lot are gonna fuck up finding her by wasting time on me…” – and an ability to generate suspense in even an innocuous location like a snooker hall, it’s a tour de force from the British writer and actor, turning a story of a missing child into a moving portrait of a man trying to find redemption, and a provocative study of a community riven with social and generational clashes rallying together to bring one of their own back home.
The realistic, un-contrived climax is at once bitter and sweet, opening up the potential for a second season, even as it ties up other loose ends. If Save Me does not return, though, there’s so much talent, heart and visceral entertainment in these six short hours that you’ll be more than satisfied. Who knew Morgan from The Walking Dead had it in him? A tiny triumph of British TV.
Save Me is available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also watch on-demand on NOW TV, for £7.99 a month (until 9th October 2019, when the price rises to £8.99), with no contract and a 7-day free trial.