Snowpiercer review – steampunk Law & Order is a trashy treat | Television | The Guardian

Snowpiercer review – steampunk Law & Order is a trashy treat

A train circles a frozen Earth carrying the elite – and, crammed at the back, the proles, plotting rebellion – in this highly-watchable new series inspired by Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 film

Snowpiercer ... (from left) Sam Otto, Daveed Diggs, Alison Wright and Jennifer Connelly.
Snowpiercer ... (from left) Sam Otto, Daveed Diggs, Alison Wright and Jennifer Connelly. Photograph: Justina Mintz/TNT
Snowpiercer ... (from left) Sam Otto, Daveed Diggs, Alison Wright and Jennifer Connelly. Photograph: Justina Mintz/TNT
Lucy Mangan
Mon 25 May 2020 01.00 EDT

I have said it before and I’ll say it again – finding good trash in the age of quality television is HARD. It has to sit firmly in the Goldilocks zone: not too good, not too bad, holding together but never threatening greatness. It’s a small target to hit, and of course, every viewer’s tolerance varies slightly.

For the avoidance of doubt – I mean drama series trash, not daytime TV or fun evening ephemera such as Queer Eye. I mean something with a story that you can still follow while you’re mostly staring at your phone, and characters just above cipher-level in whom you can become marginally invested while you put your phone down, eat your dinner and drink your wine.

But good news! Cometh the Covid hour of comfort-watching need, cometh the trash – this time on a giant armoured train, 1,001 self-sustaining carriages long, unstoppably circling an Earth “frozen to the core” by attempts to reverse global warming! I know. You’re hooked already, right? And that’s even before you know that this funicular ark was meant to carry only the elite, but was stormed by proles at the last minute before it began its endless journey, who live in dire conditions at the back, reluctantly fed on nutritional jelly slabs by guards and planning rebellion, while the billionaires, beauties and businessmen live upfront in sybaritic luxury. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen – let me just check your tickets – to Snowpiercer (Netflix). It should hit the spot for just about everybody.

The TV series is based on the original series of graphic novels by Jacque Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette and Benjamin Legrand, and Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 film, which took the novels and stripped them down into a rigorous yet somehow absolutely demented fable about life under capitalism. If you have not already had the pleasure, go and watch it now. We will Zoom-rave about Tilda Swinton’s off-the-chain performance as the train’s nutso overseer – Margaret Thatcher-as-Jane-Horrocks-by-way-of-Victoria-Wood-and-Maggie-Smith in furs and a set of buck-tooth prosthetics – when you get back.

Snowpiercer the series manages, gloriously, to bypass all that is great and almost all that is good about both of its sources of material, and turn it instead into a police procedural that just happens to be set on the aforementioned giant armoured train. Think of it as steampunk Law & Order. CSI: Wastelands. NYPD Brrr, It’s Cold. Send me a postcard if you want more of these. I’m self-isolating again. I got time.

Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) is one of the stowaways. They are called Tailers because they live in the far end of the train called the Tail and they do that because the budget went on creating the exterior shots of the train plunging through icy wastelands and not on the script, as is trash-right and proper. The Tailers are plotting revolution. Layton is urging caution when he is suddenly summoned Up Front by “voice of the train” Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) who is in charge of executing the directives of the revered Mr Wilford – the godlike, unseen inventor of the train. Layton used to be a homicide cop, and there is a serial killer preying on third-class passengers and threatening the fragile, well, Law & Order, you might say, of the train. Mr Wilford needs him to solve the crime.

OK.

Layton is the only former homicide cop on the train. The train that has a miniature ocean to supply fresh sea urchins to its paying passengers and full-sized hydroponic cherry trees in one of its 300 agricultural carriages did not install any kind of police presence.

OK.

Layton’s ex, who chose to leave the Tail five years ago to work in the Night Car – OK – is one of the suspects.

OK.

Layton is now perfectly placed to case the entire train and plan a proper revolution while he solves the murder.

OK?

OK. I think that’s all you need. There’s a gory fight scene, a near-love interest, a sweet child, some half-hearted gesturing towards class loyalty, trust and treachery, and a twist at the end of the first episode that you probably saw coming before the opening credits. Exposition barrels along faster than the train itself (“Just making a quick stop at Gun on the Mantelpiece Station!”). In short, it’s perfect. Sit back, relax and take in the trash.

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