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‘Bodkin’ Review: Will Forte in Netflix’s Low-Key, Ireland-Set Mystery-Comedy About True Crime Podcasts

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Bodkin, Netflix‘s new darkly comic mystery series about true crime podcasting, is a slow burn, not to be confused with Slow Burn, the true crime podcast briefly adapted as an Epix series.

Created by Jez Scharf, boasting the Obamas’ Higher Ground among its producers and featuring Will Forte as its most prominent star, Bodkin is a show that I felt a reasonable amount of investment in by the end. But the cumulative effect belies the fact that it’s a series that does a bunch of little things well in a low-key way, rather than doing any one thing spectacularly well.

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Bodkin

The Bottom Line Not hugely funny or thrilling, but still effective.

Airdate: Thursday, May 9 (Netflix)
Cast: Will Forte, Siobhán Cullen, Robyn Cara, David Wilmot
Creator: Jez Scharf

It’s a satire without any big laughs, a puzzle without many shocking twists and a character study, but of a very muted sort. If you go in looking for big reactions to anything, you’ll be disappointed. If you look for some minor insights into our instinctive love of voyeuristic storytelling, some smartly rendered Irish settings and a few terrific performances — Siobhán Cullen, in particular, needs to be in everything — Bodkin makes for an easy seven-episode binge.

My appreciation for the show is understated and appropriately so, since Bodkin is a show about a group of storytellers who go looking for something flashy and commercial, only to find something sadder and more human instead. It’s about making your peace when the truth falls short of expectations and learning that not everything has to be sweetened with narrative trickery and sensationalism.

Cullen plays Dove, an investigative journalist for The Guardian. Her latest story, which involved a whistleblower spilling secrets about the NHS, went horribly wrong, and she’s now under investigation herself. To avoid distractions, Dove’s editor sends her off to rural Ireland on a new assignment: She’s to lend assistance on a new podcast that The Guardian is partnering on with a respected podcast auteur, Gilbert Power (Forte). Dove hates podcasts and doesn’t especially respect what Gilbert does.

Gilbert is semi-famous, but he isn’t necessarily good at his job. He had one hit podcast season, a fluke that upended his life, followed by several failures, but there’s a story in tiny Bodkin that he thinks could rejuvenate his career. See, 25 years earlier, three people disappeared in the middle of the annual Samhain festival. Gilbert figures that the combination of an unsolved mystery, some quirky local color and possibly some personal elements as he reconnects with his Irish roots could be a smash. He, like Dove, is running away from something in his life.

The reportorial trio is rounded out by Emmy (Robyn Cara), an eager-beaver researcher who idolizes both Dove and Gilbert without fully understanding the gritty reality of their jobs.

They arrive in Bodkin and, after a brief appreciation of the town’s quintessential quirkiness, they begin to get signals that the story Gilbert is prepared to tell isn’t the real story.

Nearly every episode of Bodkin begins with Gilbert’s voiceover, a set of general platitudes — “Folk tales are more than just stories. They’re a warning.” — that will be familiar to regular podcast listeners. Gilbert has pre-told and pre-judged what happened in Bodkin in his mind, and he’s trying to steer reality to match his preconception.

Viewers are undergoing a similar journey, because we think we recognize the sort of fish-out-of-water dark comedy that Bodkin wants to be. At least for an episode or two, the show gives us something that resembles that. In this respect, Forte is something of a Trojan horse. Nothing in the way that he’s playing Gilbert is overtly comedic, but our familiarity with versions of Forte’s man-child act suggests he’s supposed to be. For a little while, Bodkin puts Gilbert at the center and layers in various eccentric supporting characters and running jokes, mostly gently chiding podcasts and the people who love them. But it isn’t that story and it isn’t his story.

The show sets viewers up for crescendos of humor and mystery, including a scattering of real-world details — the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, hints tied to Ireland’s Magdalene asylums. The actual peeling back of layers is generally less wild (though the one formally experimental episode playing with our three protagonists’ perspectives is probably my favorite of the season), less amusing, less provocative and less thrilling, but perhaps more emotionally grounded.

Several performances, starting with Cullen’s, keep the show anchored. Whether or not you’ve seen the Irish actress in previous TV work — Obituary is on Hulu, The Dry on BritBox — she’s immediately striking as both the funniest part of the early episodes and the rawest and most dramatic part of the show’s progression. More than any other character in the series, she has an appreciable arc. Whether she’s using the scripts’ myriad obscenities as a weapon or more quietly delving into Dove’s traumatic past, Cullen makes underwritten beats feel earned. Both Cullen and Cara get to play a wider range than Forte, who stays pointedly and effectively sincere throughout, naive without being cartoonishly so.

The series, which features Nash Edgerton and Bronwen Hughes among its primary directors, generally feels right thanks to its beautifully photographed West Cork locations and a deep supporting cast, topped by David Wilmot as a local with a disproportionate number of secrets and Fionnula Flanagan as a nun with a disproportionate number of secrets. Yes, everybody in Bodkin has a disproportionate number of secrets, but it’s fairly easy to keep them straight.

Bodkin holds your hand in unfolding its mystery, but not in spelling out its message, which I appreciated. Those opening voiceovers from Gilbert lampoon the way podcasts can sometimes try to reassure fans that there are easy lessons to draw from the recounting and enjoyment of tragic stories. Sometimes there are and sometimes there aren’t!

In Bodkin, the answers are muddier for the storyteller and the listener alike, and for each character, since nobody here is a clear hero or a clear villain. Though “muddy” isn’t always a recipe for dynamic and gripping drama, here it yields something that worked for me more as I mused subsequently than as I was in the immediate process of watching.

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