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'The Tourist' doesn't know who he is — just that someone wants him dead

In<em> The Tourist,</em> "The Man" (Jamie Dornan) wakes up in a small town hospital in the Australian outback with no idea who he is or how he got there.
In The Tourist, "The Man" (Jamie Dornan) wakes up in a small town hospital in the Australian outback with no idea who he is or how he got there.

Ever since the birth of mass communications, our culture has been haunted by the idea of amnesia. In high-class books by the likes of George Orwell or Milan Kundera, forgetting becomes a political metaphor for the erasure of truth. Things are less ambitious in pop entertainments like Mementoor the Jason Bourne series. There, memory-loss is less a metaphor than a motor — a gimmick to drive the story forward.

This motor purrs like a Ferrari in The Tourist, a hit BBC series playing on HBO Max. Written by the Williams brothers, Harry and Jack — best known here for The Missing and Baptiste — this funny, suspenseful six-part thriller doesn't merely keep us guessing. It keeps its amnesiac hero guessing, too. He knows even less about his own story than we do.

A bearded, muscled-up Jamie Dornanstars as a T-shirt clad Irishman who gets in a car accident and winds up in a small town hospital in the Australian outback. Known simply as "The Man," he doesn't know who he is or how he got there. But soon after he leaves the hospital, he knows one thing for sure: Somebody wants to kill him.

As he seeks to find out who's after him and why, he's helped by two very different women. Luci (Shalom Brune-Franklin) is a waitress who we aren't quite sure what to make of. In contrast, it's easy to trust probationary constable Helen Chambers, played by Danielle Macdonald. Helen's a newbie cop who struggles with her weight and with a fiancé who speaks of her appearance with such passive-aggressive meanness that I kept hoping he'd become one of the show's murder victims.

While The Man's search for his identity is grippingly plotted, the show lets the action breathe. It takes time to enjoy his encounters with a wide range of oddball types, be it a goofy chess-playing pilot, a Greek mobster, the affably nutty woman who offers him lodging, or the enormous, cowboy-hatted hitman who has the self-satisfied theatricality of an escapee from a Tarantinomovie. That said, The Man knows he must keep moving to stay alive.

For all The Tourist's inventiveness — Episode 5 is a trip — it reminds us that even good pop culture is often derivative. The show's opening car crash sequence mimics theSteven Spielbergmovie Duel. More importantly, the Williams brothers are pretty clearly doing a Down Under riff on Fargo. Their series offers the same blend of violence and barbed humor, the same mythologizing of bleak, underpopulated places, and the same cavalcade of viciousness and folly that brings out the heroism in an ordinary person.

The show's moral center is Helen, who, in Macdonald's sensational performance, has our sympathy from the get-go. Her work is so scene-stealingly good that I would call this a career-making performance if I hadn't already said this about Macdonald's electric work as an aspiring New Jersey rapper in the indie film Patti Cake$.

Helen's transparent goodness makes her the perfect counterpoint to The Man, a handsome hunk who's a mystery, even to himself. It's a great role for Dornan, who, earlier in his career, had a slightly synthetic prettiness that made him ideal for creepy characters like the S&M billionaire in Fifty Shades of Grey. Here, he's a bit older, thicker, and rougher. And just as Brad Pittoften seems liberated when his good looks are masked a bit, Dornan gives his best performance as a man who isn't sure whether or not he's the hero of his own life.

Over the course of the six episodes, The Man struggles to learn whether, back before his accident, he was a good guy or a bad guy. And if he had been a villain, does he have to stay one, even after he starts remembering his past? I won't reveal what he discovers, though I feel obligated to say that you won't get a definitive answer this season. You'll have to watch Season 2 of The Tourist, not yet made, which I bet you will be more than happy to do.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.