More successful still is the Victorian drama of ideas, in which Cora and a brilliant, buoyantly conceited young surgeon, Luke (an excellent Frank Dillane), stand in for Darwin and Freud, and God is represented by Will (Tom Hiddleston), a learned and rational local vicar who insists that the serpent is a product of the villagers’ imaginations but begins to have doubts.
And then there’s the associated love story, which is what you’ll take away from “The Essex Serpent,” not necessarily because it’s so sexy or interesting but because the actors involved are so hard to take your eyes off. The single Luke and the married Will (whose wife, played by Clémence Poésy, is unusually accommodating) are both besotted with Cora, while she, still scarred by her marriage, struggles to find a way to respond. The passions play out in the village and in posh London environs with entertaining displays of jealousy, tragic forbearance and smashed crockery.
As always with Danes, there is no question why the men in the story are so drawn to her character — Cora’s intelligence and vibrancy and depth of emotion leap out at you, present in every movement and change of expression. When she arrives at the coast, she is a force of nature, her powerful curiosity finally free to follow its lead, a condition the show captures when she rushes into the mud without hesitation to help a stranger — who happens to be Will — free a trapped sheep.
Dillane, who played the heroic heroin addict Nick Clark in “Fear the Walking Dead,” is Danes’s match as the callow but sensitive Luke, hitting the right mix of irritating and endearing. Hiddleston, taking a break from his duties in the Marvel universe, is perfectly fine but a little stiff and bland; that’s probably because Will has been contrived as a stick figure who mediates between Cora and the suspicious, resentful villagers.
The director, Clio Barnard, and his cinematographer, David Raedeker, make good use of the tortured, waterlogged topography of the Essex coast; the show’s opening shots, floating above the otherworldly landscape, turn it into a living thing as monstrous as the creature thought to be haunting it. And the story, under the lead writer Anna Symon, holds your interest as Cora’s determined but blithe attempt to bring “a voice of reason” to the villagers turns her, in their minds and perhaps ours, into the monster.