“Departure” is most thrilling at its most procedural

Departure Departure (Peacock)

Christopher Plummer & Archie Panjabi investigate a mysterious aircraft incident in Peacock’s solid new drama.

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New York City. Madelyn Strong (Rebecca Liddiard, Alias Grace), a young doctor, boards Flight 716 to London. She calls her fiancé, London DJ Ali (Shazad Latif, Star Trek: Discovery) and makes small talk with her fellow passengers. In a few hours, she will be floating in the Atlantic Ocean in a half-swamped life raft, the only survivor of Flight 716.

London. Kendra Malley (Archie Panjabi, Run), a legendary aviation investigator, is pulled out of early retirement by her mentor and former boss Howard Lawson (Christopher Plummer, Inside Man). Flight 716 is missing. The families of its passengers want answers about the fate of their loved ones. The British firm that built the aircraft wants its clients not to cancel their massive pending orders. The Prime Minister wants things handled. And so Howard turns to Kendra.

He’s already assembled a team for her to lead. Former cop Dom (Kris Holden-Ried, The Umbrella Academy), empathetic analyst Levi (Peter Mensah, Spartacus), dive expert Nadia (Tamara Duarte, Wynona Earp), tech whiz Theo (Mark Rendall, The Berenstain Bears) and MI:5 agent Janet (Claire Forlani, The Rock). 

The clock is set. Kendra and her crew need to find Flight 716 before any survivors succumb to hypothermia. When Madelyn is rescued, the stakes change. Kendra and company now need to figure out what happened, why it happened and how it happened before the tabloids sink their grubby claws into the disappearance and whip the world into a frenzy. This would be a mighty challenge even for an investigator of Kendra’s skills under the calmest of circumstances. 

Flight 716’s vanishing is far from the calmest of circumstances. Captain Donovan (Allan Hawco, Jack Ryan) was behaving erratically before and during the flight. One of the passengers (Emilio Doorgasingh, Kingdom of Heaven) was a member of the Iranian military traveling under an assumed name. A slimily amiable oligarch (Sasha Roiz, Suits) seems terribly amused by the whole thing. As Kendra and her team investigate Flight 716, the questions become a ever-more-complicated spiral. And the answers grow ever more complicated and ever more alarming.

Departure’s depiction of what’s being done and how it’s being done is never less than compelling. 

Departure, created by Vince Shiao (Aftermath), written by him along with Stephanie Tracey, John Krizanc, Malcolm MacRury and Ellen Vanstone and directed by T.J. Scott (Star Trek: Discovery) is a solid mystery/thriller miniseries with a few significant issues that keep it from greatness. One of the key subplots is wildly out of sync with the rest of the series, and the personal lives of Kendra and her team are awkwardly integrated into the storytelling.

The initial stages of the conspiracy investigation are closer to “shaggy” than “vast,” there’s some seriously questionable design work (a conspiracy website that looks like it was designed by a veteran of pop-punk album artwork and a bizarre fake video game), and at times the writing hews far too close to hoary, fearmongering cliches from mid-2000s thrillers in places. Even when it zags away from them, the result is close enough to leave a sour aftertaste. 

With that said, there is ultimately more to praise than there is to criticize. Most of Departure’s key players deliver strong performances, its depiction of the investigative process is consistently interesting, there are a number of quiet moments that play quite well, and the later stages of its conspiracy storyline are tense and exciting.

Departure is strongest when it focuses on process. Whether that’s Kendra and Dom running down a lead or Ali and Madelyn’s father Derek (Evan Buliung, Copper) trying to figure out how to best do right by her, Departure’s depiction of what’s being done and how it’s being done is never less than compelling. 

Madelyn’s dialogue-free rescue from the ocean, which opens episode 2, is well and truly artful. Scott focuses on the anonymous rescuer as he goes to work – rappelling into the ocean, making his way aboard the raft and securing Madelyn to a harness for airlift. The sequence begins with a wide shot, emphasizing how tiny and frail the raft and the rescuer are compared to the vast and mighty Atlantic Ocean. Once the rescuer boards the raft, Scott moves in closer, focusing on the physical work that goes into extracting Madelyn. Aside from being an impressive piece of stunt work, it’s a showcase of the what and the how that is, simply put, just plain neat to see.

While Departure’s writing is frequently frustrating – the dubious subplot mentioned above actively hurts actor Alexandre Bourgeois’ performance as Kendra’s son AJ, the ensemble largely does very fine work. Panjabi’s Kendra is a skillful investigator and a fairly successful portrait of someone who is recovering from the traumatic loss of a loved one. She is haunted, but not consumed, and her drive to solve the case is as much a matter of wanting to do right as it is professional pride.

Holden-Ried’s Dom is gruff but big-hearted, with the latter overtaking the former as Departure pushes forward. It’s always a treat to see Mensah, here playing quieter than his marvelous turn as Spartacus’ Oenomaus.

And Christopher Plummer is Christopher Plummer – he’s an absolute delight and brings his skill to bear on a role that definitely recalls some of his earlier performances, but still has space for great expression work. Without giving away the circumstances, late in the series, Plummer does an all-time great “Oh %&#@ me!” face. It’s a great piece of acting and it’s downright hilarious to boot.

Departure is not great television, but it’s decent television. The writing finishes strongly despite some serious wobbles and there’s solid craft on display. It’s a solid choice for fans of procedurals, and a way to spend time with a talented bunch of actors.

Departure premieres on Peacock starting September 17th.

Departure Trailer:

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