In TV’s great glut, there’s still one surefire way to know whether the show you’re watching is working at its most elemental level: How badly do you want to see the next episode? And why?
The act of binge-watching, after all, is not always one of desire. Laziness is a big factor, letting the next episode automatically load to avoid doing anything else. Other times you keep watching to the end out of some misguided sense of duty. Whatever makes a show worth starting isn’t as interesting to me as what makes it worth finishing.
This is why some of us chastise Netflix and other streaming networks for keeping their viewership data so private. Overall totals might be nice to examine, but the real magic number shows how readily viewers get hooked and keep watching episode to episode. How many pauses do Netflix’s viewers take during and between episodes, and when, on average, do they peel off in search of something better?
There’s a wonderful feeling you get from an above-average TV show — a sensation I’ve compared before to water-skiing. That first episode is compelling and entertaining enough to rise you up on skis at just the right speed. From there, with euphoric certainty, you hold on for as far and as long as that boat wants to take you, even through the bumpier episodes. It’s not simply a matter of plot, of needing to know what happens next. The investment is deeper and it relies on catharsis.
That feeling has been notably absent in new shows so far this year. I’ve reviewed plenty of shows that are okay-to-fine (“The Alienist,” “The Chi,” “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”), but none had me rearranging my highly regimented viewing schedule. I know a show is working when it throws my day completely out of whack, keeping me at the office very late, glued to my chair and determined to get through all the episodes.
“Seven Seconds,” Veena Sud’s new crime drama for Netflix, is exactly that sort of show, especially if you’re into big-city crime cases tinged with dirty cops, racial unrest and dogged courtroom tactics.
Dreary as a wintry-mix weather forecast and depressing as a dirge, “Seven Seconds” nevertheless possesses an ineffable characteristic that all shows (especially those about law and order) reach for: The undeniable need in the viewer to see a heinous incident through to its resolution, to get a sense that justice (or some form of it) might prevail.
If you remember anything about Veena Sud, it might be that her last show — a stylishly dour AMC crime drama called “The Killing” — managed to alienate its viewers by delivering a lame first-season cliffhanger where a solution was expected. The show survived another few seasons, but hard feelings lingered.
This is a far more satisfying trip. As with “The Killing,” Sud has adapted “Seven Seconds” from a foreign source (a 2013 Russian film called “The Major”) with a strong premise: On a snowy morning in Jersey City, a tired narcotics officer, Peter Jablonski (Beau Knapp), accidentally hits a teenage boy on a bicycle in a secluded portion of Liberty State Park. Noticing the boy’s bike mangled bike under the bloodied grill of his SUV, Jablonski decides not to call 911, and instead summons his squad leader, Mike DiAngelo (David Lyon).
DiAngelo arrives minutes later with two other officers from the team, Wilcox and Osorio (Patrick Murney and Raúl Castillo); they discover a trail of blood where the body of Brenton Butler lies in a ditch. He looks dead. DiAngelo decides they’ll drive away like nothing happened, ordering Jablonski to hide the car in his garage for a few days and telling Wilcox to dispose of the incriminating grill.
But the boy is still alive — barely — discovered by passersby a day later. Regina King, who twice won the Emmy for her work in John Ridley’s superb ABC crime anthology “American Crime,” stars as Brenton’s stricken mother, Latrice, who, with her husband Isaiah (Russell Hornsby), stands over her comatose son’s hospital bed and demands answers.
An overworked assistant prosecutor, K.J. Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey), offers little relief to the Butlers, but a police detective assigned to the case, Joe Rinaldi (Michael Mosley), has just transferred from the NYPD and prods Harper into taking the case seriously enough to look for more evidence. Harper has her own issues, including a drinking problem and an ill-considered affair with her boss.
Summarizing “Seven Seconds” (while avoiding spoilers) has a way of making it seem more rote than I intend. With each episode, Sud and her writers demonstrate a sharpened skill for pace and revelation, along with gracefully subtle ruminations on corruption, racial profiling and — more profoundly — the very nature of morality.
Rather than consider it to be the new show from the person who brought us “The Killing,” it might be better to think of “Seven Seconds” as the fourth, never-ordered season of “American Crime,” and not just because King gives yet another showstopping performance. “Seven Seconds” also shares “American Crime’s” willingness to slow down enough to occupy the human space of its characters, to hang for a moment in the parts of their worlds that aren’t crucial to clue-collecting, yet lend the story more authenticity.
Ashitey and Mosley are spot-on as the mismatched Harper and Rinaldi — the early animosity in their collaboration is reminiscent of Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman’s friction in “The Killing.” And, as the evidence begins to mount and DiAngelo and his mooks start to unravel, the actors’ performances take on a fearsome anxiety — Castillo is especially good at portraying a bad cop’s spiral into remorse and rottenness.
Late in the game, “Seven Seconds” becomes a courtroom drama (and Gretchen Mol steps in as a venomous defense attorney) that is more suspenseful, and, if we’re being picky, less plausible. But it’s also here that Sud, in a sort of three-episode epilogue, more than atones for any lingering resentment about how “The Killing” dealt with conclusions. We aren’t left hanging, but, consistent with the show’s mood, the outcome isn’t exactly triumphant.
Mostly what you’ll feel at the end is exhausted, regarding the clock with some bewilderment: Did I really just lose myself in 10-plus hours of gripping television? Indeed, and isn’t that what Netflix is supposedly still good for?
Seven Seconds (10 episodes) available for streaming Friday on Netflix.