Based on the crimes of Charles Sobhraj, this intense drama conjures the heady 1970s Asian hippy-trail evocatively, but where is the sense of dread?
In American Heiress, his brilliant 2016 book about the Patricia Hearst kidnapping and trial, Jeffrey Toobin makes a clear ideological distinction between the 60s and the 70s, suggesting that the two decades had merged, inaccurately, in the American psyche. “The 1960s were hopeful, the 1970s sour; the 1960s were about success, the 1970s about failure; the 1960s were sporadically violent; the 1970s pervasively violent,” he writes. Any revolutionary optimism certainly had curdled by 1975, when The Serpent (BBC One) kicks off its glossy adventures in murder on the Asian hippie trail. After all, nothing says new year, new you like an intense drama about a brutal serial killer.
“Inspired by true events”, The Serpent tells the story of how Charles Sobhraj, who killed young western travellers in 1975 and 1976, was brought to justice, although justice is light on the ground in this first episode, which concentrates largely on atmosphere. We first meet Sobhraj in 1997, living freely in Paris, as he toys with an American reporter interviewing him. “There are those who would say you got away with it,” she says, as he sits there, impassively.