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National Treasure review

All four episodes of this miniseries were provided for review.

The national treasure in this new Hulu series is not a golden trinket or a prized treasure; no, it’s the flabby and thickset Paul Finchley, a fictional comedian played by Robbie Coltrane (Harry Potter, Cracker). Paul is one half of a British comedy act who has dominated the affections of audiences for thirty-five years, but when he’s accused of raping a woman from his past, his celebrity status becomes a burden he carries around like a vice.

National Treasure first aired on Channel 4 in the UK last year and now Hulu will air it for American audiences, with the first of a four episodes kicking off tonight. The story has parallels with the Jimmy Saville case and even references the shock jock himself, piling the pressure on Paul as women from his past come forward – one by one – to lay claims against him. Paul maintains his innocence and is dismayed by the accusations, leaving the audience to question who’s lying.

It’s a strong set up, helped by an even better opening scene as we witness Paul heaving himself on to a stage, swollen and leaden-footed, met by rapturous applause. The news has yet to break, and Paul is at an awards gala to present a gong to his long-time collaborator Karl, but he’s not comfortable in front of so many eyes. Only seconds before, Paul had been perspiring behind the curtain on the verge of panic, but when the lights are on him he’s able to muster a pitch-perfect performance. National Treasure digs into the dirty underbelly of celebrity life and hints that it’s lonely at the top, but stops short of truly interrogating this line of thinking.

Instead, it changes course by introducing Paul’s daughter, Dee, who’s understandably keen to find out whether her father is a rapist and paedophile when the news hits home. But Dee is such an unlikeable character that you wish she’d go away, saddled with a cliché drug addiction and more daddy issues than you can shake a stick at. Even a wonderful performance by Andrea Riseborough can’t make Dee watchable, and soon enough we’re learning about her drug addiction inside her halfway house.

She can’t keep herself off the hard stuff, she’s contemplated suicide, and she’s got a child, too. One bizarre scene even introduces her ex-lover, who hints that she might lose the kid. But this thread is abandoned before it’s even unfurled, tossed instead onto a rapidly growing pile of half-baked ideas. The appearance of the child’s father amounts to nothing more than a throwaway cameo that barely impacts the story at hand and should have been cut entirely.

None of that matters, though, because what we really want to know is if Paul actually did it.

Eventually, Dee actually tries to be useful to the audience by diving into her memory and recalling half-remembered snippets from the time of the alleged rape. During these moments, she cautiously watches her dad and plays the Troubled Teen, but these short flashbacks don’t tell us anything new and only vaguely hint at what Paul was like. In fact, one scene in the very last episode completely negates the necessity of Dee in the story at all.

National Treasure is guilty of stitching together four hours of television with two hours of script, and though I like slow storytelling as much as the next person, I resent the idea of watching slow drama unfold that doesn’t impact the central – and interesting – plot point at hand. Were this a hardboiled whodunit we’d be treated to red herrings in the vein of Forbrydelsen, but National Treasure is strangely reluctant to engage with Paul’s alleged crime at all, preferring instead to serve up one luxurious, woozy close up after another and make one-eighties into domestic issues that bore you to sleep. Aesthetically, it’s a cut above normal TV fare, but it’s also empty space and while there are good ideas here, there just aren’t enough of them.

That’s a shame, because broadly, National Treasure couldn’t be more relevant. The media today is agog with stories of shamed celebrities, and this Hulu drama begs so many questions. Why do men in power feel they can commit these crimes? Why do women tell the truth, while others lie completely? Why do some victims wait so long to speak out? National Treasure has no real answer for any of these questions.

Physically, Robbie Coltrane is a fabulous choice for Paul, with the body of a man who has eaten his way through a lifetime of self-hatred. He is downright repulsive: 100 pounds overweight, his enormous frame supported by a cane, his gut carried like a dirty appendage. He heaves, whoozes and coughs on screen, the sound of his labored breathing amplified at every turn. The thought of this man forcing a woman into bed with him will make your lips curl.

But National Treasure misses a trick, failing to portray what life is really like as a showman. Paul is almost sanguine in the face of his alleged crimes, as if his age means he’s above the law, but the show is guilty of the same flaw, indulging its own self-importance without making the character the star. Ultimately, National Treasure is something quite unusual: a show with a great idea, brilliant actors and an excellent opening act that never amounts to more than the sum of its parts. After the opening hour, I was willing to put up with almost anything, but National Treasure spectacularly wastes the goodwill it builds and meanders its way through a dreary middle.

Is Paul guilty? That question might be worth the effort of staying with this uneven show. Thank God the dénouement is worth watching, an ending the writers could so easily have botched. It’s just a pity there’s two hours of padding to get there. A show simply about Paul, his alleged infidelities and the nature of celebrity would have been a far better watch than the family drama that unfolds.

In the end, National Treasure is content to be beautiful but vacant, smart but facile, high-brow but meaningless. It is, all told, a missed opportunity.

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