“War sucks,” says one of the many white people prominently featured in “No Man’s Land.” One of his companions protests. He’s supposed to be an author, can’t he provide more insight than that? Our budding Hemingway’s rejoinder is perhaps more revealing than the creators of Hulu’s hollow, humorless new series might have intended: “It’s catchy. It’ll be the title of my new book. War sucks.” On cue, something explodes.
That might read on paper like a joke—a pitch-black, pointed joke, but a joke all the same. This writer cannot say for sure whether or not it was intended as such. But as a reflection of the story in which it occurs, it’s irresistible. Co-created by Ron Leshem (“Euphoria”), Eitan Mansuri, and Maria Feldman and Amit Cohen (two of the co-creators of the Israeli series “False Flag”), “No Man’s Land” makes the ongoing Syrian Civil War its backdrop. The use of that term is deliberate: as written by Cohen, Leshem, and Xabi Molia, the show’s relationship to the conflict isn’t all that far off from the two-dimensional flats that turn a high school auditorium into the cornfields of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. The cornfields might have more texture. It’s distressingly incurious about the war, the country, the people who live there, the people who fight there, and even the all-important Europeans and Americans who suck up most of the oxygen in this series. It’s grim about how complicated and full of conflict the lives of these people must be, but “about” is as far as it gets. It’s about the fact that it is complex, not actually about its complexities. The result is a series that swings from dull to chaotic, back and forth. It may occasionally stumble into humanity, but try not to get your hopes up at these moments. Odds are, you’ll be disappointed.
The opening moments of “No Man’s Land” promise something quite different. A series of title cards introduce viewers to “the ferocious women of the YPJ,” a volunteer militia fighting to keep ISIS at bay in the Syria of 2015. “They fought bravely against ISIS militants,” the final card reads, “who believed that death at the hands of a female would deny them their place in paradise.” That seems like a fascinating place to begin a story, so it may surprise viewers that we see so much of this world through the eyes of Antoine (Félix Moati), a French man searching for his presumed-dead sister, with whom he’d been estranged for years prior to her death. He catches a glimpse of someone who ties her hair back just like Anna (Mélanie Thierry of “Da 5 Bloods”), and with basically no preparation, throws himself into a war zone, leaving his possibly pregnant partner behind without so much as a note. Eventually he encounters Sarya (Souheila Yacoub), a Kurdish woman who was raised in Paris until she was 16, and who is now a fiercely committed officer within the ranks of the YPJ. And across enemy lines, we meet three Brits who’ve committed themselves to ISIS; if you find yourself waiting for some insight into what motivated them to abandon everything and align themselves with terror, I suggest you content yourself with the fact that at least one of them is played by a pretty good actor.
That actor, James Krishna Floyd, makes his portion of the proceedings bearable; the same can be said about Yacoub, who remains endlessly watchable even when her storyline veers right into the territory this writer was hoping very much to avoid. (If someone cries a single tear during a sex scene, that doesn’t make said scene any less a flimsy excuse to show some breasts; neither does an extended conversation about what is and is not “real.”) Yacoub imbues Sarya with a steel-boned intensity that feels inextricable from the grief and terrible fragility of her past. It’s as if she’s two women at all times: One is a warrior, committed to her sisters, her country, and herself; one is a woman still wounded from the loss of her mother and of a life so remote that it might as well have taken place on another planet. It’s a terrific performance of a role that might otherwise have been thankless.
On the other hand, the strength of Floyd’s performance rests less on any connection between the past and the present and more on his awareness of the given circumstances. This is a show that relishes a wartime jump-scare (see that “war sucks” moment described above for but one example) but for the most part, the life-and-death stakes of each and every moment seem to fade into the background when the rain of artillery stops. Floyd, on the other hand, simply makes Nasser aware. He weighs every word. He listens actively. He’s conscious of the attention and intentions of those around him. This is not revolutionary stuff, acting-wise; if you’re playing a scene in a library, you speak softly or you get shushed. But it’s a rarity in “No Man’s Land,” and while not exclusive to Floyd’s performance alone (Yacoub does this as well), it’s a huge part of what makes him so engaging on screen.
That’s no small feat in this series, because for all its big explosions and moments of chaos, “No Man’s Land” can also be deadly dull. Perhaps its creators (along with series director Oded Ruskin) were concerned that too much detail or complexity might bog things down; if so, their decision to gesture at all that complexity without actually engaging in it backfired in a big way. It all looks the same—a real problem, given the many locations we visit. It all sounds the same. There’s little but plot to separate one character from another. There’s not even a sense that, even if the story doesn’t move you, you’re at least deepening your understanding of those living through this ongoing war, because you’re not. This is a series about war, and war, as the saying goes, is hell. That’s as far as “No Man’s Land” gets. And then on cue, something explodes.
Six episodes screened for review.