Shantaram (Apple TV+) is an adaptation of Gregory David Roberts’ 2003 self-discovery novel. It turns out to be a bit of a thriller, with some moral lessons, though its main moral is that if there’s any chance for star Charlie Hunnam to have a conversation after taking off his top, or being in the process of to take it off, then yes, it will.
It’s the early 1980s and Hunnam is Dale, an inmate in an Australian prison that looks a lot like a Diesel jeans commercial, or a Calvin Klein – CK: Incarceration campaign. He’s not a weed, but the rest of the inmates think he is, so he fears for his life. He can’t trust the authorities, for reasons along the way, so he plots a daring escape. Eventually, he ended up in Mumbai, then called Bombay. Along the way, he encounters various characters who speak in inspirational quotes, such as, “You haven’t escaped anything unless you’re chasing something.” It’s clearly contagious. At the end of the opening episode, Dale, going by the alias Lin (the name on his fake passport), says, “I guess I have to run to something. Not far from that. I can already see it laid out in a nice font in a photo of a sunrise.
There’s a touch of The Serpent to this show, especially its period details and the way it weaves its way through the criminal underworld. (I didn’t like The Serpent, but it makes it look like The Sopranos.) In the city’s unofficial “free zone,” a bar named Ronaldo’s, all sorts of shenanigans and dealings take place. Dale/Lin mingles with the fast-moving crowd of “harlots, dealers, gangsters and gamblers” who frequent the place, like Lisa, a sex worker who is “somehow sad and sexy as hell, everything at once”. Sexy and sad? Who says women can’t multitask?
Then the KGB gets involved, along with other criminals, and Dale/Lin finds himself on the run, which leaves him with plenty of moments where he has to take his shirt off to wash, maybe for another topless chat. . For a gentleman traveling light, he’s always changing.
One of the qualities that endears Dale/Lin to his new friends is his ability to do accents; it is useful to have it on hand to impersonate, for example, an employee of the United States Embassy when trying to get a US citizen out of an illegal brothel. It’s somewhat ironic, as Hunnam’s constant Aussie twang thanks to incessant voiceover is mesmerizing in its scope, if not quite in its execution. It looks like an American impersonating an Irishman impersonating an Australian. He speaks as if his sentences all met a sudden slope; his words soar skyward and end up in strange places, like a snowboarder on a halfpipe, in and up, before flying off the edge. His American accent is very convincing.
After launching a series of somewhat heavy-handed series – nice shows that seemed afraid to be anything but good – Apple TV+ is finding its voice with more ambitious and inventive television like Severance and Bad Sisters. Shantaram is a spectator, and the thriller he plants in the middle of the action, just before the end of the first episode, has moments of intrigue. He knows how to put together a gripping scene, and the prison break is suitably tense. But almost none of the characters feel authentic. They all seem to exist simply for Dale’s enrichment. This is starting to sound ungenerous and demanding. In the end, he loses confidence even with his own voice. Eventually, Dale has to explain that what just happened is important; he says that the events we have just seen “will forever change everyone’s life”. When a show has to promise its audience that it’s about to get exciting, it doesn’t do a very good job of making that happen.