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‘The Last Thing He Told Me’ review: Jennifer Garner turns amateur detective seeking clues about her missing husband

When a man disappears after his workplace is raided by the FBI, his wife is bluntly informed: “People don’t run for no reason.” That’s exactly what he’s done: The man has dropped out of sight. Starring Jennifer Garner and “Game of Thrones” alum Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, “The Last Thing He Told Me” on Apple TV+ is adapted from the 2021 novel by Laura Dave, and if there ever was a candidate for “shoulda been a movie,” this series is it.

Instead, it clocks in at seven episodes. The good news: It gets better as it goes.

Garner plays Hannah, an artist who makes wooden bowls, which is a character trait that is both specific yet tells us almost nothing about her. She’s a jeans-and-clogs kind of gal, that’s all I got. She’s recently married to a software ace named Owen (Coster-Waldau) and they live on a charming, idyllic houseboat in Sausalito, California, along with Owen’s 16-year-old daughter Bailey (Angourie Rice). Unhappy to have a stepmother foisted on her, Bailey barely tolerates this new woman in her home and is annoyed by Hannah’s sweaty efforts to ingratiate herself. Their relationship is polite but tense.

And then one day, Owen goes missing.

Soon after, Hannah receives a note from her husband that simply reads: “Protect her.” As in, protect Bailey. He’s left an equally cryptic note for his daughter, along with a duffel bag full of cash.

From left: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Jennifer Garner in “The Last Thing He Told Me.” (Jessica Brooks/Apple TV+ )

Where has Owen gone and why? Surely it has something to do with all those FBI agents streaming out of the office building where he works, but the truth proves to be more elusive and complicated.

Tonally, the series initially starts off like a thriller but evolves into a mystery — and to its benefit. There is no real violence here, which I appreciate (though the threat is hinted). The series is more interested in watching Hannah and Bailey work together to unravel the knots of Owen’s former life. They’re an oddball team, like a Woodward and teenage Bernstein, and this makes a certain kind of sense when you realize Josh Singer, who is the show’s co-creator with his wife Laura Dave, is a producer whose credits include investigative journalism films “Spotlight” and “The Post.”

Coster-Waldau’s presence is little more than a cameo. This is Garner’s show and she gives a solid performance as a woman who grasps the immediacy of the problem. We know this because she walks purposely with her brow furrowed and you can’t help wishing Garner had better material to work with. The number of times she plaintively says the name Bailey is noticeable and weird and might as well be drinking-game fodder.

“Who does this to his family?” she’s asked at one point. The question is rhetorical but Hannah offers a firm reply: “Someone without a choice.” There are cleverer ways into this kind of dialogue, but “The Last Thing He Told Me” isn’t really concerned with that. It’s a show built to withstand a distracted viewer. This is the direction many streamers are headed and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, I just think it can be done with writing that’s actually interesting.

From left: Angourie Rice and Jennifer Garner in “The Last Thing He Told Me.” (Ryan Green/Apple TV+ )

Instead, we get lines like “The more people try to convince me your dad’s guilty, the more I believe he isn’t.” So Hannah and Bailey try to piece together what’s happening — or more specifically, what happened in Owen’s past that led them to this moment. Bailey gradually unclenches from petulant and sulky into something more complicated: One half of an amateur detective team who finds the sands of her own past shifting beneath her feet as they follow the trail of clues to Austin, Texas. Once there, they track down one of Owen’s acquaintances who is played by Victor Garber, and his scenes with Garner have a meta quality to them, with the frisson of an informal reunion for these old “Alias” co-stars. David Morse also shows up late in the story as a shadowy figure who might be the key to it all. He’s really the one character who keeps you guessing.

The episodes are noticeably shorter and tighter as the season progresses, going from 45 minutes down to 35. The ending is realistically in the vein of “nothing’s back to normal but this was probably the best outcome anyone could have hoped for.” In terms of reasonably entertaining intrigue that doesn’t involve guns being waved in everyone’s faces, “The Last Thing He Told Me” gets the job done. And there’s a good chance you’ll have your laundry folded by the end.

“The Last Thing He Told Me” — 2 stars (out of 4)

Where to watch: Apple TV+

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