When it comes to developing a narrative that can be sustained over a season, the television crime drama has a few options: the classic whodunnit, the compelling whydunnit, the less conventional unto-whom-was-it-done (see “How to Get Away with Murder” season 3) or even some “Big Little Lies”-esque combination of the three.
“Seven Seconds,” a new 10-episode Netflix series from showrunner Veena Sud (“The Killing”), quickly lets us know it won’t be concerning itself with any of those questions; they’re all answered about three minutes into the first episode. In a rush to meet his pregnant wife at the hospital, off-duty Jersey City cop Pete Jablonski (Beau Knapp, “Sand Castle”) speeds through Liberty State Park and hits Brenton Butler, an African-American 15-year-old riding his bike.
It’s not what it looks like. It was an accident. But Jablonski’s supervisor in the narcotics unit, Mike DiAngelo (David Lyons, “ER”), is quick to remind the rookie cop that to a fraught American public, everything is what it looks like. Jablonski is a white cop and Brenton a Black boy. “They’re gonna crucify you for this,” DiAngelo snarls. So Brenton Butler is left to die in the snow and a cover-up ensues.
Assistant District Attorney K.J. Harper (Clare Hope-Ashitey, “Suspects”) and her partner Detective Fish Renaldi (Michael Mosley, “Sirens”) are tasked with investigating Brenton’s killing, a journey that leads them right back to the Jersey City Police Department. The fundamental question that propels “Seven Seconds,” then, is this: How deep is the moral rot of the institutions designed to govern and protect us? And is it possible to find even a semblance of justice in them? These aren’t particularly easy concepts to navigate, and at times, the show seems to crumble under their sheer weight.
Literally, yes, the hit-and-run takes place in the middle of winter. But there’s also an excessive coldness and gloom to the writing and cinematography of “Seven Seconds” that make it exhausting to watch. The show is littered with lingering stone-faced stares and troubled characters haunted by vaguely-alluded-to pasts, as if to say, “Don’t forget, this show is prestige television!” K.J. is a self-destructive alcoholic, and Jablonski is perpetually frowning. When nearly every character is broken and dysfunctional for no reason, “Seven Seconds” becomes sluggish and devoid of feeling.
The exception that proves the rule is the fantastic Regina King (“American Crime”), who gives a rich, layered performance as Latrice Butler, a grieving, untethered mother whose faith has been shaken by the death of her son. The circumstances of Brenton’s death are admittedly different than those of Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice, but Latrice’s suffering still feels real and resonant.
Given the extensive time the show also spends focused on Jablonski and his agony, it would be easy for “Seven Seconds” to veer into what we might call “Three Billboards” territory — where Black pain exists only as an accessory to a story of white redemption, and forgiveness is doled out to brutal, hateful people who haven’t necessarily earned it. But to her credit, Sud has a remarkably light directorial touch, and there’s never any sense that viewers should be feeling one way or another.
The other side of that coin is a story that’s often aimless and meandering — in desperate need of tighter editing and fewer subplots. “Seven Seconds” is occasionally rewarding, but much like the justice system itself, too slow-moving and unfulfilling to pack a punch.