Netflix’s new eight-part thriller, Fool Me Once aired on 1st January 2024 on Netflix.
Maya (Michelle Keegan) strives to put her life back together after her husband Joe (Richard Armitage) is shot dead. That includes managing sole custody of their daughter with her profession training helicopter pilots, as well as dealing with Joe’s prickly, wealthy family. Judith (Joanna Lumley), the family matriarch who never quite bought her son’s romance, and Joe’s brother and sister, Neil (James Northcote) and Caroline (Hattie Morahan), are among its members.
“Was there a voice in his ear saying: is she good enough?” Maya wonders. “How about this rough?” But when the ostensibly dead Joe emerges on nanny-cam footage, holding his kid, Maya’s need to discover the truth – and defend herself – kicks in.
It’s difficult to overstate how complicated and absurd Fool Me Once is. The plot revolves around a military whistleblower, a police officer (played by Adeel Akhtar from Four Lions), who is having weird seizures, and a cold-case suicide. But you already knew it’d be ludicrous because it’s the newest installment in Netflix’s long-running partnership with American mystery writer Harlan Coben. Coben, who went to Amherst College with Dan Brown, makes his contemporary look like a paragon of literary restraint.
Coben signed an extraordinary contract with Netflix in 2018 to adapt 14 of his novels for the streaming site, the first of which, The Stranger, also featured Armitage and was adapted by Brassic writer Danny Brocklehurst (who also worked on Fool Me Once). As a result, the “Harlan Coben Televisual Universe” was created.
Since 2020, there have been three significant English-language Coben adaptations, all of which have included Armitage (he must be on retainer at Netflix, as he also starred in the pornographic flop Obsession). In this scene, he is a dark post-mortem presence in the backdrop, while his wife takes central stage.
Keegan is a dependable actor on television, albeit she is rarely put to the test by scripts that stretch her dramatic range. Here, she is depicted as both a grieving widow and an all-action army veteran (“There’s a nasty graze to his elbow there,” she adds flirtatiously to another shooter, pointing to the human target down the firing range).
Lumley, however, is uncharacteristically restrained in her floating lead support role (before played by her Ab Fab co-star, Jennifer Saunders, in The Stranger). Her doctor mother-in-law is an annoyance (“I know you’re not used to being a full-time mother,” she patronises Maya, “but children need their routines”), but she pales in comparison to some of Lumley’s characteristic monsters.
The show insists on looking Keegan and Armitage as a lovely pair, but Coben’s planet (Harland? Cobenia?) is a depressing place. The houses are all suburban McMansions, and the cars are all gleaming SUVs; no kitchen isn’t marble, and no lawn isn’t well manicured. It’s a Ballardian middle-class nightmare masquerading as lifestyle marketing, with a colour grading that smashes every black into oblivion.
This is not the type of television to watch with your complete attention. It’s television to watch while you think about that HMRC letter, cut potatoes for your Sunday dinner, or polish your dog’s claws. It’s television that can startle you – not because the plot is shocking, but because you’re surprised it’s still on. Did the final episode play automatically? Well, it’s over now, unlike the Coben adaptations, which will keep coming.