Harlan Coben makes a few jillion dollars a year on his suspense novels (though ‘suspense’ seems like a pretty strong word for his stories. Maybe … “tension novels”?) Generally speaking, I find they have great premises, great hooks, but tend to fizzle out a bit in the final act. That was certainly the case with his recent Netflix adaptation of Safe, despite the strong effort of Michael C. Hall and company. The Stranger, however, manages to beat the odds just a bit. The writing is tighter than usual, the acting from top to bottom is top-drawer, the mid-season twist wtih Stephen Rea (Stephen friggin’ Rea!) is an actual shocker, while the reveal, in that last episode, is heartbreaking.

I think I know why …

Much of the credit should go to the actors, who give an intensity to the proceedings that sometimes transcends the been-there/done that plot itself (again, very Coben). And all of them, especially Richard Armitage and Hannah John-Kamen, are terrific. Armitage continues to show himself as a true force of nature, even in material like this. It was hard to stop watching.And as a special bonus, there’s more new Armitage this week: he’s Trevor Belmont in Warren Ellis’ animated series Castlevania — damn good, too — and Season Three of that strangely addictive series just premiered on Netflix.

And then there’s Anthony Head. Goddamn Anthony Head. Like so many early-generation geeks, I have loved this guy since the Buffy days, and since then he’s made something of a name for himself by playing assholes, from kings to executives (wait, is there a difference these days?). He’s never been as loose and authentic and just plain shitty in other stuff as he is here. It’s like he’s really awful and just making it up as he goes along. Love it. And I’ve just discovered he and I are the same age — born about three weeks apart — so he gives hope to old farts like me that we can still be energetic, ruggedly handsome, and … you know, evil. 

There is far too much good television out there right now, and I wouldn’t bump The Stranger to the top of your list. But if you’re looking for the Netflix equivalent of a good, solid read, you could do way worse.