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The Last Thing He Told Me Review: The Prestige Series Adaptation Settles At Subpar

  • The actors try their best
  • There are some intriguing locations
  • The series doesn't stand up to the lowest levels of scrutiny
  • Jennifer Garner as Hannah seems to only be able to feel various levels of sadness and concern

"The Last Thing He Told Me" is a prestige project, albeit one with actors who have a few miles on them. With names like Jennifer Garner, Aisha Tyler, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in the credits and Reese Witherspoon as an executive producer, you can bet that this group wanted to deliver a hard-hitting drama. So why does the seven-episode limited series feel so underwhelming?

"The Last Thing He Told Me" starts with Hannah Hall (Garner) destroying her phone right before she realizes her 16-year-old stepdaughter Bailey (Angourie Rice) is missing. She races through the hotel where they're staying to look for her and then returns to their room unsuccessful, where she picks up her shattered phone. Suddenly, she turns her head indicating someone has come in — but judging from the look on her face it's not Bailey. The series then flashes back to four days earlier, where it goes about establishing its real tone: confused and self-sacrificing.

Hannah lives in Sausalito, California with her husband Owen Michaels (Coster-Waldau) and his daughter, Bailey. They've been married for almost 14 months and while the marriage is great, she and Bailey don't get along. More specifically, Bailey doesn't like Hannah, and it's not a situation that seems likely to change anytime soon despite an amazing amount of trying on Hannah's part. However, when Owen disappears in the wake of his company (creatively named The Shop) going bust, Hannah is thrown into the role of Bailey's parent as she attempts to figure out what happened to her husband. A lot of that revolves around Austin, Texas, where the two women travel in an effort to track down Bailey's earliest memories. In the process, the pair discovers exactly who Owen is ... and find a new way of life.

I would love to report that the show does this cleverly and elegantly, but the reality is far less effective. While the cast does their best to keep things entertaining, the story ultimately isn't that interesting. So instead of a solid plot, we get things like Hannah and Bailey running from a bartender after he says something curious (though not scary) and Hannah dressing in disguise for no reason. Ultimately, despite the cast's efforts, the show just doesn't work.

Failing to pass the lowest levels of scrutiny

One of the series' biggest problems is it doesn't pass the lowest levels of scrutiny. For example, when U.S. Marshal Agent Grady Bradford (Augusto Aguilera) approaches Hannah after Owen has disappeared, he knows exactly why Owen left yet dodges the truth repeatedly instead of telling her. The most helpful thing he says is, "Owen Michaels is not who you think he is." However, rather than following that up with an explanation, he just walks away. This leaves the doors wide open for Hannah to start her own investigation and go to Austin; exactly where Grady doesn't want her to be.

The series is full of examples like this, most of which involve Bailey. She takes off exactly when it's least convenient, whether that's in the middle of a crowd or when they're researching her father at a library. Bailey wants to learn why her dad abandoned her with no explanation, yet she just can't keep things together long enough to finish the job. This is frustrating enough by itself, but on top of that, no matter what Bailey does, Hannah supports her with few reservations.

While it must be nice to have a stepmother who's so forgiving, it's hard to understand why Hannah never gets frustrated with Bailey. After all, Bailey treats Hannah horribly and instead of yelling at her, Hannah has the patience of a saint. This is all supposed to be part of what breaks down Bailey's walls and gets her to trust Hannah, but putting the girl in her place at least once couldn't hurt. (Plus, it would be cathartic for the audience.) The fact that you don't hate Bailey more is a miracle and has a lot to do with Angourie Rice's performance, which makes Bailey's frequent bailing more a matter of circumstance than a character flaw.

The problem with Jennifer Garner

Then there's the problem of Jennifer Garner. She's a great actress; she's proven that in her lead role in "Alias" where she was able to play every emotion one could think of. Sadly, she isn't given that option here. Instead, she seems to be trapped by the material, which dictates that she feels various degrees of sadness and concern. This is a shame for an actress who's clearly capable of much more. As Hannah, Garner is made to put her maternal instincts first; this is hard to believe given how long she's been married to Bailey's father and the way Bailey treats her.

Owen left her a note before he vanished with two words: PROTECT HER. It could be that Hannah is doing so to the best of her ability, but it's hard not to wonder why she seems so meek when it comes to Bailey. After all, you can protect someone while having more of a backbone, yet Hannah seems to be able to stand up to everyone except her stepdaughter. Garner's attraction to the material is understandable as she has three kids of her own, but Hannah's never been a mother and Garner can't seem to make that switch.

"The Last Thing He Told Me" exposes us to some little-seen places. Austin and all its surrounding neighborhoods are rarely seen in this much complexity on TV and, in particular, Sausalito almost never gets a close-up view. These neighborhoods make the show specific and intriguing, yet they don't help the show's big flaws. Ultimately, the show just doesn't pass the smell test. It may present itself as an intriguing mystery but instead of asking why Owen has run and what Hannah and Bailey can do about it, you'll find yourself asking why the characters have done such nonsensical things. In the end, this will leave you wondering why you're watching the show at all.

"The Last Thing He Told Me" debuts its first two episodes on Friday, April 14, and airs one episode on the five subsequent Fridays.