Movies

AMC Plus’ ace sci-fi buddy-cop series

Dominic Monaghan and Emma McDonald in Moonhaven

Dominic Monaghan and Emma McDonald in Moonhaven

There’s a clever subversion in one of the first scenes of Moonhaven, AMC+’s new sci-fi mystery series: Two cops, Arlo (Kadeem Hardison) and Paul (Dominic Monaghan), come across a dead body in a tranquil glade. As they examine the scene, the pair pass a few quiet comments about the case and grumble a bit about their lives in typical TV cop fashion … before Paul pulls out a small handheld device that scans the scene for all of two seconds, then spits out the identity of both the victim and the murderer. Happy with a job well done, Arlo and Paul then proceed to fulfill their real role as detectives: comforting and easing the pain of the bereaved.

So it goes when a murder happens in heaven.

Of course, we in the audience know what Paul does not: That there is more to the death of Chill Spen (Nina-Barker Francis) than some mere lovers’ quarrel; that whatever she and her boyfriend/killer Strego (Adam Isla O’Brien) were fighting over in the show’s opening seconds, it had something to do with the overall fate of Moonhaven, a utopian society that’s been built on, well… the Moon. Terraformed to perfection and isolated from the problems of a dying Earth that her people have been tasked with someday returning to save, Moonhaven is a bit like that village from MidsummarAt least if everyone involved had promised to knock it off with all the blood eagles and pubic hair pies and instead focused on actually saving the world.

Chill Spen’s death is the first major disruption to that bucolic (but also massively technologically advanced) perfection. The second comes a day later, when Earther pilot Bella Sway (Emma McDonald) arrives on the lunar surface, ferrying terrestrial politician Indira Mare (Amara Karan) and her bodyguard Tomm (a miscast Joe Manganiello) to the colony. Mare is there to prepare for The Bridge, a massive project that’s the first step in bringing Moonhaven’s long-sequestered tech and people back to Earth in an effort to start trying to fix a broken planet. Bella’s aims are more simple: keep her head down, successfully smuggle one of the Mooner’s bizarrely advanced drugs back to Earth, and then fuck off back to the busy business of survival. Our two plotlines collide suddenly when detective Paul comes knocking on the door of inveterate loner Bella’s starship, informing her that Chill Spen was, against all odds, her sister from a mother who abandoned her first daughter to go live in harmony on the moon. Would Bella like to come and grieve her death?

Phew. Got all that? Because if that big ol’ pile of heady sci-fi ideas, utopian philosophizing, and pulp fiction naming conventions strikes a spark for you, you’ll probably get a kick out of Moonhaven, which plays, at its best, like a modern reimagining of Isaac Asimov’s Robot detective stories. That’s complete with a mismatched, crime-solving duo serving as a window into the clash between two human, but alien, cultures. Through both Paul and Bella’s eyes, we’re introduced to the philosophies underpinning Moonhaven, a city of people who have been raised to view themselves, for good or ill, as humanity’s saviors. It was a damn good structure when Asimov used it almost 70 years ago, and it’s still a damn good structure now.

Moonhaven | Official Trailer | Premieres 7/7 on AMC+

The results for the series itself aren’t always seamless, admittedly. If you’re in for the long haul, for instance, you’re going to need to resign yourself to hearing a bunch of grown adults talk about their heart-feels and think-speaks and gut-chortles, along with all the other portmanteaus that make up the lunar residents’ sometimes annoyingly twee speech. Manganiello somehow gets the worst of it, despite playing an Earther; he’s introduced lobbing some of the most ham-fisted flirtlosophizing we’ve ever seen Bella’s way. His schtick is clearly meant to come off as sexy and knowing, but instead lands like something a college freshman would attempt after reading the Cliff’s Notes version of The Game—an amazing fumble for an actor capable of projecting such obvious charisma. There is, indeed, a fairly chunky kernel of corniness baked directly into the show’s DNA—possibly inevitable for a series about people who praise sincerity as one of their highest values.

McDonald and Monaghan acquit themselves well, though. She’s got the easier job, maybe, playing a character who’s fucked up in ways we’re trained to recognize, slowly untangling as she’s exposed to Moonhaven’s gentler ways. Monaghan has an altogether more interesting arc, playing (with that memorable smile and those cloudy brows) a man who doesn’t seem to be all that happy living in paradise. As the voice of Moonhaven’s best traits, his Paul makes a strength out of kindness and vulnerability; a self-described “bad detective,” he’s valuable to the story as a man who can’t stop himself from poking at the edges of perfection.

Happily for fans of the genre, Moonhaven works as both a mystery and a sci-fi allegory; despite a sometimes slow pace, it steadily layers on clues to both the murder and the culture that produced it. (It also features, we feel moved to note, a very funny performance from Hardison as Paul’s fellow “cop” Arlo, who becomes almost childishly enamored with the idea of actually solving a crime for once.) It swings for some very big ideas at times and some big visuals—those distant shots of a tiny fragment of the moon bursting into green life remain arresting throughout its run. But it’s also a quietly human series, whether racing toward the next beat of the mystery or taking a moment to appreciate the strange (sometimes corny) beauty of the world it’s created for itself.

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