Autumn pushed boundaries, but was it good?

Gallery: The craziest reality TV shows ever made (Espresso)

The Third Day is perhaps the strangest show on television. Written by Utopia’s creator, Dennis Kelly, its three initial episodes – aired under the title Summer – have seen a grieving dad, Sam (Jude Law), absconding to the windswept British rural idyll of Osea island, initially under the guise of bringing a suicidal young woman home, before he finds himself trapped in what seems to be a setup from The Wicker Man, hallucinating locust infestations, seeing visions of his departed son and partaking in bloody pagan rituals. On Osea, the sun-dappled landscape is a hell of bereavement.

If that all sounds too confusing to follow, it is because plot is more of a secondary concern to the makers of The Third Day. Instead, the hour-long shows serve as a conduit for “atmosphere”, like throat-tickling dry ice clouding a sticky dancefloor. And, in the interests of whipping up maximum atmosphere, on Saturday – the third day of October – a 12-hour, live, multihyphenate experience served as the middle point of the series, before its final dose of episodes continues the following week.

The Third Day: Autumn is one-take, one-camera, livestreamed immersive theatre. An “event”, not a show, “where the line between what is real and what is not will be increasingly blurred”, apparently. With award-winning theatre producers Punchdrunk at the helm, though, and featuring the cast of Law, Katherine Waterston – and a special appearance from singer Florence Welch – the results could be promising. This may be the maximum atmosphere we need to awaken us from the midst of another lockdown Saturday spent staring at the walls and scrolling through the news feed.

The live stream begins at 9.30am, where I am sitting with a bowl of Weetabix, joining the 1,700 other people on Sky’s Facebook page waiting for it to begin. “Debbie” asks: “What’s this then?” A meandering, meditatively slow, tracking shot across the Osea causeway marks the backdrop for onscreen text explaining that this time of year is the island’s Esus and the Sea festival, where children undergo pagan rites to adulthood, as well as the occasional selection of a new adult leader who must undergo a challenging ordeal to prove themselves. I hope Jude’s had his Weetabix, too.

So far so slow TV – for the first two hours we follow the camera as it trundles through overcast, rain-spattered steady-cam shots along the island, making for a moody screensaver backdrop, while the sound design perfectly sets a disconcerting tone of suspense with its continuous ambient drone and smatterings of dialogue kept barely audible.

What begins as an exercise in patience morphs into truly beautiful television, though – a moving still life that questions our very need for plot and easily digestible entertainment. Characters slowly enter the frame, and we meander with them as they go about setting up the island for the festival, stuffing scarecrows with hay and building fires. A sense of unease slowly grows.

A change of pace once you have sunk into this mood is shocking. That comes when we see Sam dragged from the house we found him retreating to in the last section’s finale, and now looking bearded and worse for wear. The biblical allusions start as we witness the beginning of his day’s gruelling ordeals, first mumbling an oath over a dead fish before wading into the water and partaking in a last supper with 12 other suited and stern men. The shot pauses for a few minutes here, but soon he is bundled again into more jeopardy, being made to dig a hole from the sodden ground.

Strangely, it is in moments such as this when the live stream becomes most profound. For an hour, we watch Law relentlessly dig his hole, battling with the elements and himself in the process. As he becomes more and more like the mud he is sinking into – exhausted, battered and leathery – the scene questions the very nature of acting. How far can we push realism until it is just reality itself?

That theme continues as we variously witness Law asleep for 10 minutes and then dragging the shell of a boat laden with wooden branches for an interminable half-hour before being made to stand in the freezing wind on a plinth at sea. Watching these acts of David Blaine-esque stamina questions our own capacity for empathy as we oscillate from boredom to reciprocal exhaustion to incredulity. Do we care? And, if not, why can’t we look away?

Whatever you make of the concept, this is undoubtedly a remarkable feat of immersive intensity from the leading man, his face loaded with a gripping engagement.

Meanwhile, we see Welch in the guise of a Madonna, leading Law to a short-lived moment of respite, while islanders dunk themselves into vats of blood as EDM blares in the background and funeral pyres are set ablaze in the distance. The symbolism is heavy-handed with its references to Christ’s journey to crucifixion, yet it serves the unmanageable length of the stream well – reminding viewers of the loosely progressing narrative, no matter when you decide to tune in.

As night falls, the post-watershed dread with which Summer was laden begins to creep in, ultimately leading to a heart-pounding, fire-fuelled conclusion that is seemingly celebratory and deeply layered – at one point even incorporating the shouts of the director into the drama.

Ultimately, The Third Day: Autumn is a remarkable feat of live theatre and television, creating something that feels truly experimental, yet engaging; a mesmeric spectacle comprising surprisingly little, yet one that feels impossible to turn away from – largely due to a fierce performance from Law and beautifully consistent camera and sound work. With the future of the arts in Britain laden with increasing doubt, here is a much-needed reminder of the fantastic creative potential that still lies in abundance.

The Third Day: Winter starts on 6 October at 9pm on Sky Atlantic

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