Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Case Histories

Premise:  Police detective-turned-private investigator Jackson Brodie (Jason Isaacs) has a lot on his plate. Clients certainly aren't lining up at his door. His ex-wife is concerned about his parenting skills in regard to their 10-year-old daughter (and rightly so). He and a former colleague, Detective Inspector Louise Munroe, share a mutual attraction (although their timing stinks). And, perhaps most significantly, Jackson is haunted by childhood memories involving his murdered sister. Jackson's cases sometimes dip into the past, such as the search for a woman who disappeared from her family's garden 30 years earlier at the age of three.

Running Time: Season 1 consisted of three mysteries, each broadcast in two one-hour installments. Season 2 consisted of three 90-minute episodes.

Status:  Two seasons were broadcast between 2011 and 2013. They're available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes:  Author Kate Atkinson introduced Jackson Brodie in her 2004 critically-acclaimed novel Case Histories. She has written a total of four Brodie mysteries, three of which were adapted for the TV series. Her books took place in Cambridge, but the series transferred the action to Edinburgh.

Our Review: Case Histories is an enjoyable mystery series anchored by Jason Isaacs, who makes the melancholy Brodie a champion of lost causes. He gets strong support from Millie Innes as Brodie's daughter Marlee and Amanda Abbington as DI Munroe. The frequent flashbacks involving Brodie's murdered sister become annoying, but this is still a well-done, quirky show that deserved additional seasons.

Grade: B+.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Grantchester

James Norton as Sidney Chambers.
Premise:  A former World War II soldier, Sidney Chambers (James Norton) is a young vicar in the small town of Grantchester in Cambridgeshire in the early 1950s. In the first episode, he learns that a supposed suicide may have been a murder. He eventually convinces Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green) to investigate and they team up to unmask the killer. The jazz-loving vicar and the cynical detective subsequently become friends and work together on other mysteries. Meanwhile, Sidney pines for a young woman named Amanda, whom he loves even though she has agreed to an arranged marriage per her father's wishes. Mrs. Maguire, Sidney's stern housekeeper, looks after him. They are joined by Leonard Finch, a timid curate who would rather read about theology than mingle with the parishioners. The fourth "family" member--much to Mrs. Maguire's dismay--is Dickens, a black Labrador puppy that Amanda gave Sidney.

Running Time: 50 minutes.

Status:  Two seasons were broadcast between 2014 and 2016. They're available on DVD in the U.S. ITV has commissioned a third season.

Production Notes:  Grantchester is a based on a series of books by James Runcie, whose father was a former Archbishop of Canterbury. Runcie has published six Grantchester novels since 2012. The first one, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death contained six stand-alone mysteries. Four of them were adapted for first season episodes of the TV series. Grantchester stars James Norton and Robson Green both had prior experience in British detective shows. The latter starred in Touching Evil, while Norton appeared in Happy Valley and Death Comes to Pemberley (an unofficial sequel to Pride and Prejudice in the form of a mystery).

Our Review: Grantchester is a pleasant--if derivative--series that borrows elements from Father Brown and Endeavor. Its biggest liabilities are the mysteries which often seems like minor subplots that detract from the rest of the happenings (e.g., Sidney's love life, Geordie struggling to cope with his young son's serious illness). In fact, my enjoyment of Grantchester grew after I accepted it as a Call the Midwife-style drama instead of a British detective show. The cast is uniformly fine, with James Norton keeping Sidney from become a lovesick bore. Grantchester also benefits from a rich music score and exquisite country landscapes.

Grade: B.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

New Tricks

Dennis Waterman, Alun Armstrong,
James Bolam, and Amanda Redman.
Premise:  When a botched assignment temporarily derails her fast-track career, Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman is tasked with standing up the Unsolved Crime and Open Case (UCOS) Squad for the Metropolitan Police. In addition to Pullman, this new unit will consist of three retired detectives--civilians without the authority to arrest criminals. At least, Sandra (Amanda Redman) gets to pick her team and her first choice is a former boss, retired Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Halford (James Bolam). With Halford's assistance, Sandra completes the UCOS team with retired Detective Inspector Brian Lane (Alun Armstrong) and Detective Sergeant Gerry Standing (Dennis Waterman). All three men come with considerable baggage: Jack still talks nightly with his dead wife, the apparent victim of a hit-and-run accident; the oft-married Gerry battles unfounded, past allegations of corruption; and Brian is an obsessive-compulsive, recovering alcoholic with a long-suffering wife. However, the four detectives come together to forge a potent investigative team and a supportive "family." Beginning with Jack's departure in season 9, the original team is gradually replaced by an entirely new one over seasons 10-12.

Running Time: 60 minutes (the pilot is 97 minutes).

Status:  12 seasons were broadcast between 2003 and 2015. They're available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes:  Screenwriter Roy Mitchell created New Tricks, which--unlike many British TV detective shows--was not based on a book series. All four of the original actors experienced prior success on British television. Among his many shows, Alun Armstrong starred opposite David Jason (A Touch of Frost) in A Sharp Intake of Breath. Amanda Redman earned a 2001 Best Actress nomination from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for At Home With the Braithwaites. James Bolam may be best remembered for his 1960s sitcom The Likely Lads. And Dennis Waterman teamed with John Thaw (Inspector Morse) for the 1970s police drama The Sweeney. Of course, New Tricks was also something of a family affair. Brian Lane's wife Esther was played by James Bolam's real-life spouse Susan Jameson. Brian and Esther's dog Scampi was, in fact, Alun Armstrong's dog. And Dennis Waterman's real-life daughter Hannah played his "daughter" for two seasons on the show. By the way, the theme song is sung by Waterman--who we almost get to hear sing in one of the episodes.

Our Review:  New Tricks is a delightful comedy-drama with brilliantly-conceived characters played by a talented group of actors. I'm sure every fan has his or her favorite, but ours was Brian, whose memory for details (his rarely-used nickname is Memory Lane) plays a critical part in solving many of the cases. We were consistently impressed with Alun Armstrong's ability to convey the character's strengths (he's the most intelligent member of UCOS) and liabilities (the alcoholism, his inability to let go of an idea, his childish behavior). While New Tricks is never less than enjoyable, its first seven years are the best and feature well-developed mysteries balanced with insights into the characters' private lives. One of the show's few flaws is its occasional tendency to drop a ongoing storyline without explanation. For example, the first few seasons feature Gerry's ex-wives, particularly Jayne, but they disappear by the fourth season. Still, that's a minor quibble for a show that gets an enthusiastic endorsement.

Grade:  A (A+ for seasons 1-7).

Monday, August 1, 2016

Inspector George Gently

DS Bacchus and Inspector Gently.
Premise: Set in the mid-1960s, the pilot episode introduces Inspector George Gently of London's Metropolitan Police, who is devastated when his wife is killed in a hit-and-run accident. He suspects her death was foul play, a result of his investigation of a gangster deeply involved with police corruption. The middle-aged detective ponders retirement, but instead transfers to Northumberland to track down the man responsible for his wife's murder. In his new job, George is paired with a detective sergeant named John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby). While Gently is a tough, by-the-book veteran cop with strong ethics, Bacchus bends the rules, displays questionable judgment, and sometimes lacks morals. And yet, Gently sees the potential for a good detective and thus the unlikely pair form a tenuous bond. WPC Rachel Coles becomes part of the investigation team in season six.

Running Time:  90 minutes.

Status:  Seven seasons were broadcast between 2007 and 2015. They're available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes: Alan Hunter wrote 46 George Gently novels, starting with Gently Does It in 1955. However, in the books, there is no John Bacchus, Gently is single, and he lives in Norfolk. Prior to the Gently series, Martin Shaw portrayed P.D. James' detective Adam Dalgliesh in two two-part movies in 2003 and 2005. He also portrayed an anti-establishment high court justice in Judge John Deed (2001-2007). Lee Ingleby enhanced his own detective pedigree as an inspector in the 2008 mini-series Place of Execution.

Our Review:  Inspector George Gently is an exceptional detective series built around the complex relationship between Gently and Bacchus. At various times, they come across as mentor and protege, supportive colleagues, and even opponents (their heated disagreements comprise some of the strongest scenes). Martin Shaw and Lee Ingleby deep dig into their characters to the point that we cringe, for example, when Bacchus makes a boneheaded decision like getting involved with the wife of a fellow detective. The mysteries are well-written and take advantage of the period setting without drawing obvious attention to it. Although Inspector George Gently enjoyed modest success on the BBC, we're flummoxed as to why it didn't become a bigger hit.

Grade:  A+.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Dalgliesh

Premise:  Adam Dalgliesh, P.D. James' intellectual, poetry-writing Scotland Yard detective, first appeared as a Detective Superintendent in 1983's Death of an Expert Witness. This seven-episode case involves a murder investigation at an isolated forensics laboratory. In the final episode, in a somewhat jarring and brief scene, we learn that Dalgliesh's wife Jean and unborn son died during childbirth. Dalgliesh (Roy Marsden) is methodical and introspective, though he can turn on the charm with a quick smile and women often find him attractive. Over the years, he progresses to Detective Chief Superintendent and finally achieves the rank of Commander. His only relative is his Aunt Jane, who bequeaths him a cottage, converted from a lighthouse, on the coast of Norfolk. He spends some time there and becomes involved in a murder investigation in Devices and Desires (1991).

Running Time:  The running times vary greatly. Some cases consisted of up to seven 50-minute installments, while 1993's Unnatural Causes was a 103-minute movie.

Status:  Ten cases were broadcast between 1983 and 1998. They're all available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes:  Phyllis Dorothy James--best known as P.D. James--introduced DCI Adam Dalgliesh in her 1962 novel Cover Her Face. Over the next four decades, she wrote 13 more Dalgliesh mysteries, with the last one being The Private Patient in 2008. The first twelve were adapted for television, with Roy Marsden starring in the first ten and Martin Shaw (George Gently) playing the detective in a later series consisting of two two-part episodes. The cases in the TV series appear in a different order from the books, which explains why Dalgliesh is introduced as a Detective Superintendent instead of a DCI.

Our Review:  Dalgliesh is unique in that some of the mysteries take over five hours to unravel over multiple episodes. Its length provides more time for character development and also more complex plotlines. Some of the show's critics have complained about slow pacing, but we found the stories to be absorbing and the settings ideal for homicide (e.g., a hospital, a nursing home). Roy Marsden is well-cast as Dalgliesh, coming across as professional and very much in charge (he uses his commanding voice to great effect). Some of the plots vary from the P.D. James novels, but they still reflect the hidden desires and dark secrets that drive her murderers.

Grade:  A-.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Heat of the Sun

Premise: When a child killer evades justice in 1930s London, Detective Superintendent Albert Tyburn (Trevor Eve) takes matters in his own hands--with deadly results. To mitigate a sticky situation, Tyburn's Scotland Yard superior banishes the detective to colonial Kenya. Saddled with an incompetent new boss and primitive police methods, Tyburn struggles to fit into a society populated by affluent British landowners and the poverty-stricken laborers that work for them. It's a place that's ripe for...murder.

Running Time:  100 minutes.

Status:  One season was broadcast on 1998. It's available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes: The series was filmed on location in Zimbabwe. Susannah Harker plays Tyburn's love interest, an independent-minded aviator based on real-life pilot and author Beryl Markham. Harker gained fame three years earlier fas Jane Bennet in the immensely-popular BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Star Trevor Eve would later plays a less likable sleuth in the long-running cold case mystery series Waking the Dead.

Our Review: Heat of the Sun benefits mightily from a setting and time that provide a fascinating backdrop for the murder cases. Trevor Eve makes Tyburn a sharp, but cynical detective who pushes the boundaries of what his superiors will tolerate. His attitude meshes perfectly with the show's unflattering portrait of British Colonials, many of whom have no interest in understanding the culture of the country where they live. It's too bad Heat of the Sun didn't last longer than a single season. One suspects that the ratings did not justify the costs of the on-location production.

Grade:  B+.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Inspector Lewis (aka Lewis)

Kevin Whately as Robbie Lewis.
Premise:  Kevin Whately first appeared as Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis in 33 episodes of the Inspector Morse TV series from 1987-2000. He reprised in the role in a 2006 made-for-television movie. Set five years after Morse's death, Lewis has been promoted to Detective Inspector and his wife has been killed in a hit-and-run accident. On his return to Oxford from a stint in the British Virgin Islands, the working-class "old school" Lewis is paired with Detective Sergeant James Hathaway (Laurence Fox), a Cambridge-educated young man who once studied for priesthood. Although Lewis and Hathaway share little in common, they make a formidable investigative team and eventually become close friends. Pathologist Dr. Laura Hobson (Claire Holman), who appeared later in episodes of Inspector Morse, assists Lewis and Hathaway.

Running Time:  90 minutes (some of the later cases are broadcast as two 45-minute episodes).

Status:  There have been 33 cases broadcast between 2006 and 2015. As of June 2016, all but the last seasons are available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes:  Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis appeared in Colin Dexter 's 1975 novel Last Bus to Woodstock, the first of 13 Inspector Morse books. The literary Lewis is older than Kevin Whately was when he debuted as Lewis on the Morse TV series. On the decision to end Inspector Lewis after nine season, Whately said in a 2015 interview with The Daily Mail: "There were 33 Inspector Morse stories. I suppose it's a sentimental thing, but I wouldn't want to do more Lewis than we did Morse because I do still think of it as an offshoot."

Our Review:  Although Inspector Morse is considered a classic detective series by many, it never has appealed to us. Thus, we were initially surprised with Inspector Lewis, a first-rate series with clever plots and appealing characters set--like Morse and later Endeavor--in the beautiful city of Oxford. The camaraderie between Lewis and Hathaway, though, is the series' greatest asset. They play off each other wonderfully, with Lewis' uncanny intuition working in perfect harmony with Hathaway's refined intelligence. In fact, when Hathaway eventually gets promoted to Detective Inspector, it's almost disappointing because the relationship evolves ever so slightly (as it must). An added bonus is the long-time friendship between Lewis and Dr. Hobson, which subtly grows into something more over time.

Grade:  A.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Injustice

James Purfoy as Will Travers.
Anthony Horowitz (Foyle's War, Midsomer Murders) wrote this five-part 2011 miniseries in which three seemingly divergent storylines eventually converge to unravel two murder cases.

William Travers (James Purefoy) is a former London-based barrister who has moved to Suffolk following a nervous breakdown incurred while working on a murder case. To his wife Jane's surprise, Will agrees to defend an old friend who has been accused of killing a young woman with whom he was having an affair. Meanwhile, Jane, who volunteers at a local youth prison, has befriended a teenage boy that shows promise as an author. She shows a partial manuscript to her former boss in the publishing business and he is equally impressed.

During a trial in Suffolk, Travers meets Detective Inspector Mark Wenborn, an unlikable cop whose questionable ethics are tolerated because he gets results. Wenborn becomes the lead investigator when an itinerant worker is found shot dead in a farmer's shack. Wenborn focuses on two critical clues: fresh tire marks near the shack and signature markings on the fatal bullet.

Of course, the viewer already knows the identity of the second murderer: Horowitz unveils that shocking revelation in the closing shot of the first episode!

Injustice isn't Horowitz's best work, but his second-best is still pretty darn good. As he did in some of his Midsomer Murders scripts, Horowitz uses flashbacks to explain the motives for the crimes. However, whereas he employed a prologue in Midsomer, he sprinkles the flashbacks throughout Injustice--allowing the viewer to piece together the puzzle gradually.

Creed-Miles as DI Wenborn.
James Purefoy commands attention as the main protagonist, but is still upstaged by Charlie Creed-Miles as DI Wenborn. The latter is not just a dirty cop; he is one of the most disgusting detectives in British television. He beats his wife, berates his black detective sergeant, insults one witness and blackmails another, cheats on his wife with a prostitute, and brutally threatens a young man. When a colleague complains about him, the assistant chief constable defends Wenborn's methods (though he likely doesn't know the extent of Wenborn's antics).

As the setting for Foyle's War proved, Anthony Horowitz likes to bend the conventions of traditional mysteries. With Injustice, his inclusion of an emotionally-fragile barrister and a crooked cop (who replaces the typical hero) makes this miniseries an intriguing outing. I also like the intersecting plots, though Horowitiz used that technique even more effectively in his earlier miniseries Collision (2009).

Grade:  B.




Monday, June 27, 2016

DCI Banks

DCI Alan Banks and DS Annie Cabbott.
Premise:  Alan Banks (Stephen Tompkinson), a middle-aged detective chief inspector, heads a team of close-knit investigators for the Yorkshire Police major crimes unit. His right-hand "man" is the sharp--but also very ambitious--Detective Sergeant Annie Cabbott. Annie is much younger than Banks, but there's a strong bond between the two and their co-workers suspect a romantic relationship. When Annie becomes pregnant (Alan rightfully insists he's not the father), Detective Inspector Helen Morton joins the team. Helen is a stickler for following standard procedures and, despite her obvious intelligence, she has a hard time integrating into Banks' team. Banks and his fellow detectives investigate major crimes--typically murder--in the city and the surrounding countryside.

Running Time:  90 minutes (some cases are presented as two 45-minute episodes).

Status:  There have 13 cases broadcast between 2010 and 2015. The pilot and seasons 1-3 (comprising ten cases) are available on DVD in the U.S. The fourth season is scheduled for DVD release in June 2015.

Production Notes: The DCI Banks television series is based on the Inspector Banks mystery series written by Peter Robinson. The author was born in Yorkshire, but moved to Canada as an adult, where he studied under Joyce Carol Oates at the University of Windsor and eventually earned a Ph.D. in English from York University. As of 2016, he has written 26 Inspector Banks novels and two short story collections. His first Banks novel, Gallows View, appeared in 1987. Two of Robinson's novels, Wednesday's Child and In a Dry Season were nominated for presitigious Edgar Awards in mystery fiction. His 2001 short story "Missing in Action" won an Edgar. In regard to the TV series, Peter Robinson wrote in a 2010 article in The Telegraph: "A lot of people asked me about the casting of Stephen Tompkinson as Banks, mostly because he’s best known for light or comic roles, such as Ballykissangel and Wild at Heart. I met Stephen early on in the process, and he wanted to talk about Banks, find out everything he could from me about the character. I was impressed by his dedication, and when I finally saw him ‘in character’ I thought he managed to convey the essence of Banks."

Our Review:  While there is nothing unique about DCI Banks, it's a well-crafted detective series  featuring strong plots and well-developed characters. Several of the episodes feature two different story lines that converge by the conclusion. Banks is a perceptive detective that occasionally bends the rules. He's comfortable with his professional life, but struggles with non-work relationships. A divorced father, he has trouble communicating with his adult daughter. His relationship with Annie is extremely awkward--at various times, they treat each other as professional colleagues, friends, and eventually lovers. For her part, Annie obviously cares for and respects Banks, but she is still willing to bypass him on occasion if it benefits her career. There's a dark tone to the cases, which is enhanced by the moody urban and rural Yorkshire landscapes.

Grade:  A.