Russell Tovey is one of TV’s great discoveries of the last several years. The British actor seems perpetually cast as the cad, the overly assured fellow whose pride brings him in for a fall — and yet his charm and some innate vulnerable quality a couple of layers down keep us, if not ever on his side, then at least engaged in what lies ahead for him. In “Looking” and “Years and Years,” Tovey’s characters’ missteps pushed the story along, while their sensitivity kept us watching.
He’s now at center stage in “The Sister,” a four-part limited series that first aired on Britain’s ITV and is to appear on Hulu Jan. 22. And it’s he who makes the series — created by Neil Cross of “Luther” and inspired by Cross’s own novel — work, inasmuch as it does. “The Sister,” a suspense story that can at times verge into the realm of the ludicrous, derives its charge from its chaotic events happening to a deeply relatable person, one whose mistakes don’t disqualify him from our engaged sympathy.
Here, Tovey plays Nathan, a fellow for whom, in the present day, much is going right. He and his beloved wife Holly (Amrita Acharia) have their ups and downs — they’re having trouble conceiving — but are solid. Better still, Nathan seems to have successfully buried the past, up until the reappearance of an old and unwelcome friend (Bertie Carvell). The burial in question was literal, and Carvel’s Bob has appeared at Nathan’s doorstep with news that the woods are about to be dug up by developers. This threatens the discovery of the woman the pair interred, the one Nathan remembers that they killed.
Flashbacks jittering through time lend “The Sister” a sense of urgency, as does a dramatic universe constrained to the point of implausibility. Yes, the series gets its charge from the departed (Simone Ashley) being the sister of Nathan’s wife. Not merely, though, does this strain credulity, but it also makes Nathan seem boorish in the extreme. (He has his reasons, but given that we are told he was involved in the disappearance of a woman and then married her sister without disclosing that fact, he is also not the party with whom our feelings lie.)
In fighting to keep us on his side, Nathan has as an asset not merely Tovey’s characteristically strong performance, showing us the despair of someone who believes himself to be basically good but for one misdeed as the misdeed comes to occupy the center of his life. There’s also the fact that Bob is a uniquely creepy creation, a self-styled “paranormal expert” whose presence onscreen seems to cause damp, chilly air to leach out of whatever screen one’s watching. Bob is a moonless night personified — dark, eager to mislead, and absent any spark but that of mischief. In the role, Carvel isn’t necessarily the first person you’d think of as a friend for Tovey, but he absolutely sells both his incantatory hold over the younger man. Bob is a believer in the unknown, and someone who seems resistant to truth; his tie to the case is as someone who relishes its possibility for unleashing the supernatural.
As the catalyst of drama, Bob is a clever invention, and a frightening one. And he helps carry “The Sister” — an imperfect but pleasantly unnerving piece of work — over the line into worthwhile. Between Carvel and Tovey, the viewer sees two sides of male fecklessness and naivete. Both actors play men who believe they are in control: Carvel’s Bob of the forces of life and death, and Tovey’s Nathan over his own fate, evading culpability. Both have a lot to learn by the time this enjoyably nasty little series reaches its end.
“The Sister” premieres Jan. 22 on Hulu