Escapist mysteries have become a robust subgenre on Netflix with salacious hits like “Behind Her Eyes” and “You” landing in the streaming platform’s top ten every time new episodes are available. Twisting and turning narratives that sacrifice character for mounting revelations, these shows work because of their breakneck plotting, never allowing viewers to question if anything adds up because they’re too excited about the next shock. Into these choppy waters plunges “Clickbait,” created by Tony Ayres and Christian White. Like a novel one buys at an airport and leaves on a beach chair, it’s a show that’s not really meant to be taken all that seriously, but it sacrifices the essential pace that a project like this needs in service of a silly structure that drains it of much-needed momentum. When one gets bored while watching a show like “Clickbait,” questions of logic, motive, and unrecognizable human behavior start to derail entertainment value, and this one will just leave viewers looking for another thumbnail on which to click.
The set-up works. Nick Brewer (Adrian Grenier) has been kidnapped. A seemingly happy family man, Nick is now the center of a lot of media attention via an increasingly viral video in which he sits, bloodied, holding a sign that confesses to abuse and even the murder of a woman. There are no words or hints to his location. Just a sad look and the signs. He holds up another one that reveals that he will be murdered if the video reaches 5 million views. Of course, this takes absolutely no time at all once the story hits the press, and Nick’s family and the authorities race to find out where Nick is in time to save him, figure out who kidnapped him, and get to the bottom of the “revelation” that their victim might be a killer himself.
The premiere centers Nick’s rebellious sister, Pia (Zoe Kazan), as she races to save her brother’s life, filling in some intrigue with flashbacks to a fight between Pia and her brother, along with hints of a dark family past. It’s not bad on its own, setting up an intriguing concept and anchoring it to an engaging actress like Kazan, easily the best performer on the show. And it’s directed by Brad Anderson (“Session 9”), a veteran with a skill for escapist TV who knows how to set plates spinning on a show like this one.
To say it all falls apart after that first episode wouldn’t be an understatement. It turns out that someone decided that “Clickbait” wouldn’t be an interesting enough story with a traditional mystery structure and so they came up with a gimmick to try and set it apart: Each episode shifts the POV to a different protagonist. So while the main story of Nick’s kidnapping thrusts forward with some revelations revealed through the occasional flashback, the show jumps horses midstream, first to the investigating officer (Phoenix Raei), then to Nick’s wife Sophie (Betty Gabriel), and on to figures like a reporter (Abraham Lim) trying to break the story, and, eventually, to the people who hold all the answers to this increasingly silly puzzle.
And it really is increasingly silly. One goes into a show like “Clickbait” knowing that suspension of disbelief is going to be key to enjoying it, and yet the writing here constantly calls attention to its inconsistent characters, forced to make dumb decisions to keep a plot moving. And it’s one thing if a show’s logic starts to unravel after a few clever twists and reveals or setting up characters for viewers to care about, but “Clickbait” starts to stretch credulity in chapter two and then just keeps digging deeper and deeper into its own silly hole. Again, the structure amplifies this sense because characters come and go in service of the gimmick, which further highlights the thinness of the entire project. None of them feel three-dimensional, and the mystery is too dumb to make up for the lack of depth.
It doesn’t help that the awkward, poorly written dialogue often swirls around “modern issues” that the writers here simply don’t seem to understand. The tech world, police work, journalism—it’s all so superficially rendered, which is fine in a piece of mystery escapism that’s working but distracting in one that never comes together. One feels like “Clickbait” thinks it’s saying something about the dangers of the Online Era, but it’s just using buzzwords and plot points from true crime stories instead of really digging into any of it, or even really presenting any of it in a believable manner. The ultimate revelation of what happened to Nick Brewer is so silly that it shatters any conceivable pretense that “Clickbait” has anything serious on its mind about relationships, online personas, or really a single thing.
A few performances break through the tedium. Kazan, who almost always makes smart decisions as a performer, carries that first episode, but she’s pushed to the side too often by the structure that follows even if she finds a few beats here and there to make one wish she was on a better show. By the same token, Gabriel is a much more interesting character than the ones forced to take center stage after her episode, and she’s rendered so thinly by the writing that it’s almost insulting.
Take the concept of “Clickbait,” even with all its crazy twists, but center Kazan and Gabriel, allowing the story to unfold from the eyes of a victim’s sister and wife, as they learn they never really knew one of the most important people in their lives. That’s not a bad show, but “Clickbait” never allows itself to live up to that potential, ultimately feeling like it has the attention span of someone doom-scrolling through Facebook, spending a few minutes with this profile and then a few minutes with that profile, before logging off and finding something better to do. [D+]
“Clickbait” is available on Netflix now.