“Save Me,” a six-episode series making its U.S. debut on Starz this fall, is a British crime drama only in the sense that it’s both British and a crime drama. Anything else that phrase might evoke isn’t found here. There are no sleepy towns rocked by scandal or collectively grieving; In “Save Me,” South London hums along unperturbed by the horrible crime. There are no rough-hewn, mismatched detectives deconstructing leads in dimly-lit rooms, with one exception: when the motion-sensing lights at the police station turn themselves off. And the story isn’t a languid, slow-burn that unfolds drop by drop, but one that moves at an absorbing, steady clip. In short, it’s the rare show that’s dark, but doesn’t feel the need to constantly remind you of it.
Like many of those atmospheric British dramas (think “Broadchurch” or “Doctor Foster”), the mystery of “Save Me” surrounds a missing child. Thirteen-year-old Jody (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness, “Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie”), has left her pristine suburban home in Surbiton to visit her estranged biological father Nelly (Lennie James, “The Walking Dead”) for a week. In a video message Jody leaves for her mother (Suranne Jones, “Doctor Foster”), she explains that she and her father have been in correspondence for a while, and that he has expressed interest in seeing her. The problem? Nelly hasn’t seen, spoken with or thought about Jody in 10 years.
So when Nelly is arrested on suspicion of Jody’s abduction, he’s initially confused, and then horrified. Someone has been chatting online with Jody, pretending to be Nelly. And as he reviews the chat logs, which are peppered with accurate details about his life and family, it dawns on him that the kidnapper must be someone he knows. To clear his name, Nelly sets out to track down Jody himself.
Nelly, unlike a certain famous onscreen father, has no very particular set of skills with which to rescue his daughter. He’s a down-on-his-luck womanizer with little going for him besides his sheer charm, spending his days at a local pub and his nights on whichever girlfriend’s couch is available. Lennie James is a treat to watch in the role, equal parts swagger and desperation. He is matched by the brilliant Suranne Jones, whose performance as Jody’s mother Claire is muted but rich and stirring. In one especially wrenching scene, a choked-up Claire watches the police film a Jody lookalike walking through London, re-enacting the CCTV footage of the hours before the abduction in the hopes it will trigger a witness’s memory.
Along the way, as it begins to feel more and more grim, the show is granted some levity through small, lovely moments of London color. A woman in a burqa walks down the street carrying a flame-painted skateboard. A man in Nelly’s neighborhood doesn’t let the deafening sound of police sirens interrupt his morning tai chi. “Save Me” is also brightened by Dustin O’Halloran’s (“Transparent”) gorgeous score, which opts for delicate strings in favor of anything too bombastic or obvious. And that’s the real beauty of this show — its ability to steer itself clear of sensationalism and horror, and instead tell a story so quietly devastating.