"How much you enjoy The Essex Serpent, an Apple TV Plus adaptation of Sarah Perry’s 2016 novel, might depend on how much you enjoy seeing Tom Hiddleston brooding in a misty field while wearing cozy wool sweaters," says Andrew Webster of the limited series starring Hiddleston and Claire Danes. "For a lot of people, that will probably be enough of a hook. (It was for me.) But thankfully, the six-episode series offers a lot more than great hair blowing in the wind — it’s a tense and heartfelt exploration of grief and belief and how much those two things can mess with you. The great sweaters are just a bonus." Webster adds: "Much of the show hinges on watching the three of them navigate this awkward dynamic while being too British and polite to just come out and say how they feel. This is balanced with all of the aforementioned struggles like finding a mythical sea serpent or perfecting a radical kind of surgery. It’s a slow burn of a show, which doesn’t reveal its true intentions until a few episodes in. But once it finds its footing, The Essex Serpent becomes a drama that treats its subjects with a refreshing kind of honesty that makes them all the more interesting. Falling in and out of love is always messy, but especially when the world around you is also a complete mess. The Essex Serpent captures that perfectly. And at six episodes long, it does so without overstaying its welcome."
Claire Danes is brilliant, Tom Hiddleston isn't: "Perhaps this is down to a lack of chemistry between the leads, or perhaps the miscasting of Hiddleston, who never manages to shed his innate air of suave confidence," says Lucy Mangan. "It works well when playing a god of mischief amidst a plethora of equally towering egos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; less so when playing a Victorian vicar humble enough to admit doubts and wrestle with his conscience. Let alone fall in love with a woman cleverer than him, and spend time offering explanations that he is too honest to dismiss out of hand, however much they pain him. It gives his exchanges with Cora a condescending edge that is the death knell to the love and profound yearning that animated their relationship in the novel. Danes, on the other hand, is magnificent as Cora – brusque, athletic, undisguisably intelligent and every inch a woman gradually being restored to life and self in the wake of her husband’s brutality."
There is something missing at the heart of The Essex Serpent – that 1% of magic that every good TV show demands: "It’s hard to put your finger exactly on what’s wrong: one thing is that the central fear the village is experiencing, the ancient horror of the mythological Essex Serpent, is never really set up enough for you to get why everyone’s hysterical. Maybe it’s because Hiddleston and Danes’s theological squabbling, the dynamite that explodes the entire story, feels less like two intellectual titans locking horns and more like a nervous University Challenge team trying to diplomatically figure out what order they’ll sit in," says Joel Golby. "Maybe it’s too obsessed with being legacy TV to actually be good legacy TV: everyone’s always giving each other very poignant weird gifts, or gazing at one thing while crying about another, or heroically saving a life. And some of the dialogue – Claire Danes wakes up from a traumatic nightmare to be hugged instantly by a maid, who instantly says: 'It’s OK. Michael can’t hurt you any more' – I mean, come on. Subtlety exists, Apple! I am begging you to use it!"
The Essex Serpent feels a bit like PBS' Masterpiece: "We hesitate to praise the show with a Masterpiece Theatre tag, but there is a bit of tea-and-biscuit coziness in The Essex Serpent’s earnest patience and restraint," says David Cote. "(Even a spontaneous shag on the moors is handled discreetly). 'Love is not finite; it’s not confined to marriage; there are so many ways to love,' Cora tells Will, explaining how friendship and Eros can snake around each other like inlets and isles. For those needing a break from Bridgerton’s smoldering looks or The Great’s cynicism, try wading into this humanely gothic tale. The water’s cold but refreshing."
The Essex Serpent never quite takes off in the way it should: Although it is generally handsome, literate and quite well acted, The Essex Serpent suffers from the same problems of a lot of Prestige TV fare, says Mike Hale. "In common with a lot of contemporary prestige-TV productions, it seems to have worked so hard and so carefully to achieve the right surface patina that it forgot about being exciting — there are surprises in the plot, but you rarely feel the shock of real surprise, or of vision, in the filmmaking," says Hale. "It’s a tasteful and static enterprise that deserves attention because it comes to life whenever Danes is onscreen."
Despite its flaws, The Essex Serpent succeeds as a gothic meditation on the magic and wonder of the natural world: "Dialogue that’s meant to be thought-provoking sometimes just drags," says Julia Glassman, adding that it suffers from clichés. "Those flaws aside, though, The Essex Serpent succeeds as a gothic meditation on the magic and wonder of the natural world, whether it’s seen through the lens of science or the supernatural. But it’s also a moving story about human connection," says Glassman. "'Love is not finite,' Cora muses at one point. 'It’s not confined to marriage. There are so many ways to love.' Cora, Will, and everyone else caught up in the serpent’s wake feel their way through all those different kinds of love, sometimes stumbling, sometimes finding each other in moments of tenderness and awe."
The Essex Serpent delivers for fans of period dramas: "Before entering into my first watch-through of Apple TV+'s upcoming series The Essex Serpent, my instincts were that its premise was perfectly suited to my personal interests," says Carly Lane. "Not only am I always somewhat drawn to the period drama as a general rule, but I couldn't help but be intrigued based on the names that were attached. Given that I'm not personally familiar with the book by Sarah Perry on which the series is based, I can only judge the final small-screen product, adapted by Anna Symon and directed by Clio Barnard, on its own merits — and fortunately, The Essex Serpent delivers in just about every facet. From performances by Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes that are infused with a delicious note of inward yearning that slowly displays itself on the outside to the fog-blanketed marshes of the Essex village in which the bulk of the story is set, the resulting product is an atmospheric, Gothic romance that doesn't retreat from indulging in its overall foreboding while it ultimately looks toward the possibility of an optimistic ending."
The Essex Serpent falls prey to more clichés in telling the story of Will and Cora’s blossoming, forbidden love: "Danes acquits herself well in the moments when Cora has to reckon with her overwhelming feelings, and there’s hardly anyone better in the tortured romance game than Hiddleston," says Caroline Framke. "But after briefly exploring so many other tantalizing avenues — the serpent’s grip on an increasingly fanatical town, Cora’s love of science bumping up against her subconscious instincts, Martha’s boldness belying her secret desires — that it becomes a disappointment to see this romance subsume all else."
Why Tom Hiddleston went from Loki to The Essex Serpent: The actor was looking for a change of pace after playing an agent of chaos. “I guess maybe that’s why I was really drawn to it,” he says. “I was drawn to him. He’s so finely drawn by Sarah Perry and Anna Symon. He seems to be kind of similar to a literary archetype – very grounded, very solid, very rational container for other people’s anxieties, someone that people lean on and depend on. But of course, he doesn’t have all the answers, and there are things he hasn’t folded into his theology and his worldview.”