How do you tell a mystery twice? If you’re the makers of “Limetown,” you don’t mess with what already worked. Adapted from the popular 2015 podcast (that spawned a second season last year), the new Facebook Watch series doesn’t sweat redundancies and, through two episodes, sprints headfirst into a faithful retelling. Original creators Zach Akers and Skip Bronkie are on board as writers and executive producers — with TV vet Josh Appelbaum (“Alias,” “Zoo”) showrunning — and the transition from an audible-only story to one with added visual components goes rather smoothly. While there’s still a prevalent, somewhat subverting, reliance on sound, the contributions of a commanding lead like Jessica Biel and outstanding support from Stanley Tucci help this version of “Limetown” feel as engrossing and necessary as the first.
And for newcomers, you’re all set. The conspiracy-thriller is smartly constructed; quickly snatching attention with a spooky intro, just as urgently setting the stakes for its broad mystery, and then launching into a labyrinthine path to answers. Lia Haddock (Biel) guides the way as an investigative journalist obsessed with a decade-old story. In 2003, an experimental community was set up, consisting of neuroscientists working on mysterious projects, all of whom randomly and suddenly disappeared eight months after moving to Limetown.
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The story made international news, but faded from public scrutiny after 13 Congressional hearings, an official commission, and over 6,000 subpoenas amounted to zero explanation for where they went or how they disappeared in the first place. Conspiracy theorists chatter online about a series of limestone tunnels under the town (from which it got its name — limestone + town = Limetown) and a private security team that kept police off the property for the three days prior to everyone’s sudden departure, but Lia is the only one still fixated on the fate of these scientists.
Why? Mainly, because she has a personal connection: Emile Haddock (Tucci) is her uncle and one-time caretaker. Despite a deep fondness for one another, Emile moved to Limetown while Lia was still very young in order to pursue his research among other advanced scientific minds. Now, Lia is trying to find him, or at least find out what happened to him and what he was doing in that town.
Director Rebecca Thomas constructs brief but moving flashbacks that fully utilize Tucci’s innate appeal; he’s so kind, so nurturing, so engaging with Lia, it’s impossible not to understand the grown Lia’s need to find him. This emphasis on her personal investment is one of the subtle shifts between podcast and TV show, along with a few structural maneuvers to help hold the audience’s attention. Early on, “Limetown” establishes Lia’s job as a pathway to exposition: She’s a public radio journalist, so listening to her record her story makes for an easy transition to her narrating various scenes or the audience hearing key pieces of evidence (like the 911 call that preceded the citizens’ disappearance).
The first episode basically establishes what’s already happened while the second moves things forward in the present. Anyone who’s listened to the podcast knows the episodic construction of the first season: Lia is going to progress her story, one person, one interview at a time. What remains to be seen is how much “Limetown” is content to provide the easy answers viewers crave vs. examining the psychological challenges of hurtling unanswerable questions into the unknown. More than a few moments call to mind “The Leftovers,” in how inexplicable loss can parallel death itself. There’s the line when a fellow reporter tells Lia, “The answers might be there, but that doesn’t mean you won’t go crazy looking for them,” or when a source reminds her that “closure is a process. For those who lost someone here, it likely never began and it likely never will.”
“Limetown” could use its central question — where did they go? — to explore people’s various means of coping with loss, or it could send Lia into crazy, spine-tingling, science-fiction territory, or it could find a way to do both. Biel is clearly capable of handling the challenge, as she embraces another curious character at the heart of a broad mystery, earning favorable comparisons to her Emmy-nominated performance in “The Sinner.” What more “Limetown” could become is up to its makers, but Facebook Watch should have a hit on its hands — for newcomers and podcast listeners alike.
“Limetown” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. The first two episodes will be released Wednesday, October 16 at 3 p.m. ET on Facebook Watch. Watch the trailer below.