‘Keep Breathing’ Review: Melissa Barrera Can’t Save Netflix’s Sketchy Survival Drama

For TV critics, this week’s theme is less-buzzy new versions of some of the buzziest shows of the past year. It will be a fun game to see how many reviews discuss Peacock’s The Resort without mentioning HBO’s The White Lotus in the first paragraph (when the more apt comparison is actually Apple TV+’s Acapulco) or Amazon’s Paper Girls without mentioning Netflix’s Stranger Things (when the more apt comparison is actually Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club).

The answer may be close to “zero.” (I won’t even try when it comes to Paper Girls.)

The Bottom Line

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Barrera shines, but don’t expect this drama to survive in TV’s wilderness.

I have at least successfully avoided mentioning Showtime’s Yellowjackets until several sentences into my review of Netflix’s Keep Breathing, a so-called limited series that is unquestionably most easily described as a one-woman version of Yellowjackets without any of the sensationalistic — or “fun,” if you prefer — aspects that made Yellowjackets an Emmy-nominated mini-sensation. No ritualistic cannibalism, killer ’90s soundtrack or intimations of the supernatural? No problem!

I admired Keep Breathing for its stripped-down — six episodes, each under 40 minutes, making it the Peak TV version of getting your name painted on a grain of rice — integrity and for the latest confirmation of Melissa Barrera’s always watchable star power. But I kept waiting for the show to find a twistier engine or more surprising emotional gear that never materialized.

Created by L.A. Complex veterans Marin Gero and Brendan Gall, Keep Breathing stars Barrera as Liv, a Manhattan attorney trying desperately to get to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories for reasons that will eventually become clear, if never quite interesting. Liv is harboring one or two big secrets, which will become important after she has to hitch a ride on a small plane with the shady George (Mike Dopud) and Sam (Austin Stowell), who immediately become completely irrelevant when the plane crashes somewhere in the Canadian wilderness.

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Abandoned with neither supplies nor skills, other than her litigious determination, Liv has to figure out how to get back to civilization. Along the way, Liv utilizes flashbacks involving her boring-and-flighty mother (Florencia Lozano), boring-and-sickly father (Juan Pablo Espinosa) and boring-and-hunky boyfriend (Jeff Wilbusch) to realize that for all the dangerous flora and fauna and the scarcity of resources, what’s really holding her back is an assortment of very rudimentary psychological hangups. Nothing she uncovers about her commitment issues, abandonment complex and various professional compulsions couldn’t have been unearthed in the first hour of therapy, but Liz is a very busy attorney who’s about to learn the valuable lesson that sometimes the most treacherous wilderness of all is the unexplored human soul. Or something.

Every once in a while in the first couple of episodes, Keep Breathing hints at more heightened drama, without quite resorting to the contrivances that tend to supersede “making shelter” or “finding food” in filmed survival stories. There’s a bear. George and Sam work for some potentially scary people. One of Liv’s secrets is particularly precarious. But every time you start thinking that this is when Keep Breathing advances past its very basic hook, it quickly retreats. So many survival stories feel the inexplicable (to me) need to add bonus stakes when “life and death” theoretically should be enough. But if I’d never previously understood why anybody would think this genre required misplaced polar bears or scary human sacrifices for added tension, maybe now I do?

If the extremes here are somewhere between a tease and an afterthought, and the psychological exploration is no deeper than the crystal-clear lake that becomes a haven for Liv’s plane, the survival stuff is just rudimentary. The generous interpretation is that the series is “efficient.” If Liv finds herself looking at a pair of earrings, you know those earrings are only two or three scenes from being used as a fishhook. If a bear takes a dump on the beach, you can be sure it isn’t just for the giggly gross-out of ursine scat. Settle in and wait for Chekhov’s bear poop to pay off. Every once in a while you’re going to get impatient that Liv hasn’t realized the utility of the all-too-coincidental items directors Maggie Kiley and Rebecca Rodriguez featured in close-ups, but Keep Breathing isn’t in the business of keeping its audience waiting, nor is it in the business of making Liv work too hard.

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My most frequent move lately has been saying that various limited series would have been better off as movies, but Keep Breathing wouldn’t work better as a movie. It would, however, probably be a very fun book — preferably one written in the first person so that Liv’s internal journey through her troubled past might feel organic instead of sapping the suspense any time she goes from justifiable panic at her predicament to remembering her hesitant flirtations with Wilbusch’s Danny or the nagging insecurities that she’s becoming her mother or becoming her father. On the page, it would all just be filtered through her memories, as opposed to on-screen, where you can’t help but be aware that even if Keep Breathing is entirely Liv’s story, a lot of time is spent on secondary characters so weakly written that none of the supporting performances emerges as even the least bit memorable.

One could, again, choose the generous interpretation that because Liv doesn’t know herself, she similarly can’t know the people in her flashbacks. And since her isolation is at least 25 percent metaphorical, it wouldn’t make sense to give her richly realized foils to interact with.

After proving her mettle as a vulnerable, self-destructive sex bomb in Vida, an explosion of song-and-dance charisma in In the Heights and a proficient scream queen in Scream, Keep Breathing shows that Barrera can hold her own opposite one-dimensional co-stars and beautifully photographed nature. There’s something over-polished and almost doll-like about the version of Liv we see in flashbacks and then, mirroring Barrera’s acting journey, something both relatable and revelatory as Liv strips away the trappings of her Manhattan persona to uncover something raw and resilient. Barrera’s wide eyes convey Liv’s inquisitive response to her new environment and, in a series not designed for humor, her reactions are sometimes very funny. Barrera holds the camera with confidence, and I appreciate the way she keeps choosing to showcase different aspects of her acting arsenal, though it’s time for somebody to look at her past work and give her some kind of Voltron role that combines everything she does well.

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Barrera has to carry Keep Breathing in a way that no single actor in Yellowjackets has to do, and she nails that level of heavy lifting. Unfortunately, Liv’s backstory has to carry Keep Breathing in a way none of the comparably simplistic backstories ever had to carry Lost. If you didn’t care about the origin of Jack’s tattoos, a different Lost flashback was just a week away, but if you don’t invest in Liv’s various insecurities, there’s nothing else here. Too often, when it comes to Keep Breathing, there’s nothing else there — not that the six speedy episodes, with their pretty cinematography and solid lead performance, ever make the viewing painful.

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