Saturday, September 30, 2017

Above Suspicion

Premise:  Anna Travis (Kelly Reilly) is a rookie detective constable who works for the Metropolitan  Police. Her middle-aged boss, DCI James Langton (Ciarán Hinds), takes an active interest in Travis, in part because he knew her detective father and in part because he finds her attractive. Anna's first days with the Langton's team are challenging: she throws up at the autopsy and her female colleagues are put off by Anna's choice of work attire (e.g., high heels, tight skirts). Gradually, though, Langton recognizes that Anna is an intelligent investigator with great promise. Her first case involves a serial killer who has murdered women periodically over an eight-year period. The prime suspect is a handsome film actor (Jason Durr), who soon becomes enamored with Anna.

Running Time: 45 minutes.

Status: Four seasons, comprising 11 episodes, aired between 2009 and 2012. The first two seasons can be streamed on Acorn TV.

Production Notes:  Former British actress Lynda La Plante created Above Suspicion, basing the teleplay on the first of her Anna Travis detective novels. La Plante, who is best known as the creator the classic detective series Prime Suspect, has written nine Anna Travis books. In the novels, as well as the series, Travis progresses through the ranks of the Met Police, rising from Detective Constable to Detective Chief Inspector. In a 2011 interview, La Plante compared Travis with Prime Suspect's tough Jane Tennison: "Anna Travis is a fast-track detective, never having been in uniform, and without the discrimination level that Tennison had to deal with. What interested me was that Travis has a university background as opposed to street experience. Gradually, we also see how Anna Travis grows into a formidable female detective and becomes as tough as Tennison."

Our Review:  Above Suspicion is a solid detective series well acted by its cast. Its protagonist, though, makes too many sloppy mistakes in the first episodes--even for a rookie. In one case, she sleeps with a journalist whom she has just met, thus inadvertently giving him the opportunity to read her case notes. Kelly Reilly makes Travis a fresh, appealing character. However, her 24-year age difference with co-star Ciarán Hinds add an Oedipus Complex angle to their characters' sexual attraction.

Grade: B.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Prey

John Simm in the first season.
Premise:  Each season of this miniseries focused on a law enforcement officer who--through circumstances beyond his control--becomes hunted by the Manchester Metropolitan Police. The plots are connected only by DS Susan Reinhardt (Rose Cavaliero), a veteran detective whose frumpy appearance masks her sharp intellect. In the first season, DS Marcus Farrow (John Simm) is framed when his estranged wife and one of his sons is murdered. As his colleagues pursue him relentlessly, Farrow tries to prove his innocence. In the second season, prison security officer David Murdoch (Philip Glenister) is forced into facilitating a prisoner's escape when his pregnant daughter is kidnapped. When the breakout goes wrong, Murdoch becomes the police's prey along with the female prisoner handcuffed to him.

Running Time:  45 minutes.

Status:  Two seasons of three episodes each aired on ITV in 2014-15.

Production Notes: Prey was nominated as Best Miniseries in 2015 by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. John Simm previously starred in the critically-acclaimed mystery series Life on Mars (2006-2007). He portrayed a contemporary police detective knocked unconscious when struck by a car. He awakens to find himself somehow transported back in time to 1973.

Our Review:  Both seasons of Prey stretch credibility by placing their protagonists in far-fetched situations. Still, the first season presents an exciting story grounded by John Simm's excellent performance as a man on the run--who knows how to avoid capture because of his police experience. Philip Glenister makes a compelling lead in the second season, but the plot is riddled with holes and falls apart in the last episode. It doesn't help that too much time is devoted to Reinhardt's personal life (she receives a proposal, gets pregnant, and considers a career change).

Grade: B.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Hamish Macbeth

Carlyle with Zippy as Wee Jock.
Premise:  Hamish Macbeth (Robert Carlyle) is the police constable in the rural Scottish town of Lockdubh. He and his wee dog Jock, a Westie, have their hands (and paws) full with maintaining the law among Lockdubh's quirky residents. Of course, sometimes Hamish bends the law himself, such as when he helps Major Maclean improve a poorly-staged fake theft. The young constable's cases range from illegal lobster sales to escaped convicts to murder. On a couple of occasions, Detective Inspector Bruce from Glasgow comes down to lend a hand (though he's not very helpful). Hamish's closest friend, TV John McIver, has the gift of second sight at times. Hamish is in love with novelist Alexandra "Alex" Maclean, but he also harbors feelings for Isobel Sutherland, a reporter for The Lochdubh Listener (and she is obviously smitten with Hamish).

Running Time:  50 minutes.

Status:  Hasmish Macbeth ran for three season from 1995-97, comprising a total of 20 episodes. It can streamed on Acorn TV.

Production Notes: Hamish Macbeth was based on a series of novels written by M.C. Beaton (a pseudonym for Marion Chesney). Beaton introduced the character in Death of a Gossip in 1985 and has written 34 Hamish Macbeth novels as of 2017. Beaton has also written several other book series, including the Agatha Raison mysteries. Robert Carlyle was on the cusp of stardom when he first played Hamish in 1995. He subsequently gained fame in Trainspotting (1996) and The World Is Not Enough (1999). Today, he may best be known as Rumpelstiltskin in the long-running American TV series Once Upon a Time. Two episodes from the first season of Hamish Macbeth were written by Danny Boyle, who later directed Trainspotting (starring Carlyle) and won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire.

Our Review:  Hamish Macbeth is not a traditional detective show, with some episodes focusing solely on Hamish's attempts to resolve conflicts among the town's residents. While the general tone is laidback, there are serious episodes such as "A Bit of an Epic," in which a team-building mountain climb turns deadly. Robert Carlyle is excellent in the lead role and grounds the show when it borders on becoming too eccentric. Shirley Henderson is delightful as Isobel and her character's longing for Hamish provide the series' emotional core. Danny Boyle wrote one of the best episodes, "Wee Jock's Lament," in which the death of Hamish's dog closes and opens doors in the lives of several people. Incidentally, the season 1 episode "West Coast Story," which features a local production of West Side Story, was omitted from some of the DVD sets because of copyright issues. It can be viewed on Acorn TV.

Grade: B+.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Loch Ness

Laura Fraser and Siobhan Finneran.
Premise:  A kids' prank goes wrong in the small Scottish town of Lochnafoy when the supposed remains of the Loch Ness Monster include a human brain. Things get worse when the dead body of a local music teacher is found at the foot of Carn Mohr Mountain--and it's missing a brain. DCI Lauren Quigley and forensic psychologist Blake Albrighton soon arrive from Glasgow to take over the investigation. Quigley quickly learns to rely on Detective Sergeant Annie Redford, whose knowledge of the town and its residents compensates for her inexperience with homicides. When another murder is discovered, Quigley (Siobhan Finneran) and Redford (Laura Fraser) begin to suspect it's the work of a serial killer. There are certainly plenty of viable suspects, to include: an ex-convict who served twenty years for two violent murders; a young man secretly sedated by his mother; and the arrogant head of the local college, who keeps videotaped interviews of his students. Will Quigley and Redford find the killer before he or she strikes again? And who is that corpse at the bottom of the loch?

Running Time:  45 minutes.

Status:  Six episodes aired in 2017. It can be streamed on Acorn TV.

Production Notes: Stephen Brady, who wrote Loch Ness, is no stranger to the mystery genre. He previously wrote episodes of Vera, Taggart, Silent Witness, and Fortitude. The cast also features TV mystery veterans Siobhan Finneran (Happy Valley) and Laura Fraser (The Missing). The latter is probably best known for her work on the U.S. cable series Breaking Bad. Note that Loch Ness is also known under the title The Loch.

Our Review:  If you were a fan of Broadchurch, you'll love this brooding tale that works as an engrossing mystery as well as a portrait of a small town ravaged by violent deaths. The likable Redford and the cold Quigley counterbalance each other nicely, with Finneran and Fraser both delivering strong performances. However, Don Gilet almost steals the show with his portrayal of a police consultant/celebrity author still battling demons from his past. The intricate plotting will keep most viewers guessing about the killer's identify until the final episode (although one loose end is not tied up). The Scottish scenery, accentuated by dark gray skies, contributes mightily to the atmosphere.

Grade: A.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Cracker

Premise:  Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald is a chain-smoking alcoholic with gambling debts and a looming divorce from his long-suffering wife. He berates colleagues, defies authority figures, and struggles as a parent. However, Fitz (Robbie Coltrane) is also a brilliant psychologist that can probe into the darkness of the criminal mind--a skill that has made him invaluable to the Greater Manchester Police. He first gets involved in police investigations when a former student is murdered and the victim's mother asks for his help. After Fitz discovers the identity of the killer, DCI David Bilborough keeps him on a retainer for consultation services. Fitz and Bilborough frequently clash, such as when the DCI asks Fitz not to discuss a murder and the psychologist does so on a nationally televised talk show. Fitz sometimes works with DS Jane Penhaligon (Geraldine Somerville) and they eventually become lovers.

Running Time: 50-120 minutes. Most of the cases span multiple episodes.

Status:  Cracker ran for five seasons comprised of 25 episodes. Seasons 1-4 were shown in 1993-1996. The final "season" consisted of a single episode shown in 2006. The series can be streamed on Acorn TV and is also available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes:  Cracker is an acclaimed television series that earned Robbie Coltrane three consecutive BAFTA Awards as Best Actor (1994-96). The series also won as Best Drama in 1995 and 1996. Screenwriter Jimmy McGovern, who created Cracker, won two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America for his work on the show. In 1997, Cracker was adapted for U.S. television with Robert Pastorelli in the title role. That series only lasted 16 episodes.

Our Review: Cracker is not a traditional detective show. As in Columbo, the murderer is often revealed to the audience in the first installment of a multi-episode case. The plot then shifts back and forth between the investigative team and the criminal--with subplots focusing on Fitz's personal life. Cracker features strong acting and quality scripts, but it's a dark TV series that may not appeal to those who enjoy escapist detective fare. Personally, I found it grim and depressing--and more character study than mystery.

Grade: B+.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Taggart

Mark McManus as DCI Taggart.
Premise:  "I live with murder. It's ugly. It's cold," says Jim Taggart, a savvy, no-nonsense detective chief inspector in Glasgow. Taggart is a blue-collar policeman, having worked his way through the ranks. He knows Glasgow, having grown up there (and often refers to it as "my city"). He's not an easy man to work with and his detective sergeants have to show their mettle to earn his trust. Taggart's college-educated wife Jean is wheelchair-bound, a result of paralysis during childbirth. Their adult daughter Alison works as a hospital nurse. In the series' first episode in 1983, Peter Livingstone is introduced as Taggart's new detective sergeant. Over the years, Taggart has had different detective sergeants. Actor Mark McManus died in 1994, with his last appearance as Taggart being in the 1995 episode "Prayer for the Dead." The Taggart TV series continued without for 16 more seasons, with other characters being the primary investigators.

Running Time:  Varied from 60 to 125 minutes.

Status:  An impressive 27 seasons of 110 episodes broadcast between 1983 and 2010. They're available on DVD in the U.S. (though the titles can be confusing, e.g., Taggart - Set 1 is not from the first season). Some of the episodes can be streamed on Acorn TV.

Production Notes: In a 2011 interview, series creator Glenn Chandler said: "I'd been putting on plays at the old Soho Poly when I was asked to create a series about a Glasgow detective. When I pointed out that I actually came from Edinburgh, I asked if I could set the series there. But on grounds of cost, it had to be set in Glasgow. So I took a crash-course in Glasgow speak, doing my research by hanging around in bars. But there'd still be moments when I'd be told that what I'd written was pure Edinburgh and it needed translating into Glasgwegian."

Our Review:  Like its original lead character, Taggart is a straightforward detective series that offers little that's unique beyond its gray Glasgow setting. To its credit, the mystery plots hold interest thanks to a plethora of suspects and red herrings. Overall, one's enjoyment of the series will hinge on one's acceptance of the lead characters. Personally, we grew a little tired of DCI Taggart (and admittedly have not watched the episodes with him).

Grade: B (McManus episodes only).

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Great Train Robbery

Luke Evans as Bruce Reynolds.
Premise:  On August 8, 1963, Bruce Richard Reynolds masterminded the biggest heist in British history when he and 14 others stole £2.6 million from a Royal Mail Train. To put his crime in perspective, that haul would be worth approximately £51 million today. The Great Train Robbery, a 2013 miniseries, covers the the crime's preparation, execution, and investigation in two parts. The first half, subtitled A Robber's Tale, introduces Reynolds (Luke Evans) as a criminal more interested in the challenge of the crime--and the camaraderie with his follow robbers--than in the loot. Reynolds' meticulous planning pays off when the heist is executed almost to perfection. However, the aftermath is filled with unforeseen events and careless mistakes. The minseries' second half, A Copper's Tale, focuses on the investigation by Detective Chief Superintendent Tommy Butler and the Flying Squad (a special robbery division in London's Metropolitan Police). A shrewd loner nicknamed "One Day" for his success in nabbing criminals, Butler (Jim Broadbent) navigates political interference as he pushes his team to follow up every lead and capture all 15 gang members.

Running Time: 180 minutes (two 90-minute parts).

Status:  It originally aired on the BBC in December 2013. It's available on DVD in the U.S. and can be streamed on Acorn TV.

Production Notes:  Robert Ryan's 2010 novel Signal Red, which was based on the real-life crime, served as the basis for the miniseries. Several of the robbers and the coppers wrote autobiographies, to include Crossing the Line: The Autobiography of a Thief (1995) by Bruce Reynolds and No Fixed Address (1973) by Butler's deputy, Detective Inspector Frank Williams. (Spoiler alert!) Reynolds eluded capture for five years before Butler tracked him down, spending much of that time in Mexico and Canada. He served 10 years in prison, a shorter sentence than many of the others caught earlier. Two of his fellow criminals, Ronald Biggs and Charlie Wilson, escaped from prison. Wilson was eventually caught, but Biggs underwent plastic surgery and settled in Brazil where he could not be extradited. At age 71, he voluntarily returned to Great Britain--and was promptly arrested again. Incidentally, singer Phil Collins played gang member Buster Edwards in the 1988 film Buster.

Our Review: The first half of The Great Train Robbery is a breezy caper film grounded by Luke Evans' compelling portrayal of the fascinating Reynolds. It would have been nice to get to know some of the other characters better, but there are too many of them and the compact 90-minute running time doesn't have a minute to spare. The second half slows down the pace, as befits Butler's methodical investigation. The detective, superbly played by Broadbent, remains something of an enigma, though his dedication to pursuing justice is never in doubt. Although The Great Train Robbery is a first-rate affair, it does glorify Reynolds and his colleagues, glossing over the more violent aspects of the crime. In real life, train conductor Jack Mills experienced a traumatic brain injury as a result of being struck by one of the gang.

Grade: A-.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Striking Out

The cast of Striking Out, with star Amy Huberman on far right .
Premise:  After discovering her fiancé Eric with another woman, Tara Rafferty (Amy Huberman) hits reset on her life and career. She quits the law firm where she worked with Eric and breaks off her engagement. Describing herself as a "corporate attorney gone walkabout," she sets up practice in a former metal works factory adjacent to a coffee house. Tara surrounds herself with a team comprised of: a client--awaiting trial for fraud--who serves as her assistant; a leather-clad, soft-spoken female private detective; and a legal colleague immersed in a high profile case. Tara's clients include a bigamist's wife, a young couple who may lose custody of their son, and a woman written out of her late father's will. These cases often cause Tara to cross paths with Dunbar & Calloways--and Eric's parents, who are seriously displeased that she refuses to take back Eric.

Running Time: 50 minutes.


Status:  Striking Out debuted on Irish television in 2017 and can be streamed on Acorn TV in the U.S. Thus far, it consists of one season of four episodes.


Production Notes: The most familiar faces for American audiences are probably Neil Morrissey and Nick Dunning. Morrissey, who plays barrister Vincent Pike, previously starred in the TV series Line of Duty, Grantchester, and The Night Manager. He was also cast as a murder suspect recently in a season 19 Midsommer Murders episode. Nick Dunning, who stars as Tara's father Conrad, has had a long career in film and television. His previous work includes Da Vinci's Demons, Vexed, Injustice, and The Tudors.


Our Review:  Striking Out is an engaging, well-written legal drama that hits the ground running and never lets up. There's no shortage of subplots, whether it's Tara's strained relationship with her mother or the potentially dark ulterior motive of private investigator Meg Riley (smartly played by Fiona O'Shaughnessy). Amy Huberman makes an appealing lead, portraying Tara as a professional woman still sorting out her emotions even as she embraces her new "adventure." The colorful Dublin cityscapes will be an added bonus for American viewers. It's too bad the first season includes just four episodes--but thankfully, a second season has already been commissioned.


Grade: A-.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Republic of Doyle

Alan Hawco and Sean McGinley.
Premise:  Jake and Malachy "Mal" Doyle operate Doyle and Doyle, a father-son private detective agency in Newfoundland. Mal (Sean McGinley) is a respected retired police officer who occasionally calls on his old colleagues for favors. Jake worked briefly for the police, too, but his independent ways--and lapses in judgment--undoubtedly caused clashes with his superiors. How bad are those "lapses in judgment?" In one episode, Jake (Alan Hawco) sleeps with a client's wife--whom he's supposed to be investigating for cheating. Mal's second wife, Rose, runs the business end of Doyle and Doyle and also does research for their cases. Mal's 16-year-old granddaughter Tinny (short for Katrina) lives with him, Rose, and Jake. Rose hires a young graffiti artist named Des--who defaced Jake's 1968 Pontiac GTO--to help out at the agency. At the start of the first season, Jake is in the process of getting divorced from his wife Nikki and becomes romantically interested in police constable Leslie Bennett.

Running Time: 44 minutes.

Status:  Republic of Doyle ran for six seasons comprised of 78 episodes, beginning in 2010. Seasons 1-2 are available on DVD in the U.S. The series can be streamed on Acorn TV.

Production Notes:  Star Alan Hawco co-created the Republic of Doyle, wrote some of the episodes, and is listed in the credits as an executive producer. Hawco played one of Jake Doyle's ancestors in a 2013 episode of  the TV series Murdoch Mysteries, which is set at the turn-of-the-century. Murdoch star Yannick Bisson returned the favor in 2014 by appearing as one of his latter-day descendants in an episode of Republic of Doyle. Prior to co-starring in Republic of Doyle, Sean McGinley played a crooked pub owner in the Irish detective series Single-handed.

Our Review:  Republic of Doyle is a conventional detective show that relies on its agreeable stars to compensate for its lack of originality (although the crossover with Murdoch Mysteries was an inspired idea). Hawco and McGinley make the formula work well enough in most episodes. If you're a fan of "buddy action films," you'll enjoy Republic of Doyle. Just don't look for engrossing mysteries.

Grade: B.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Code of a Killer

John Simm and David Threlfall.
Premise:  In 1983, the Leicestershire police discover the body of 15-year-old Lynda Mann, who was raped and murdered near her home. After an extensive investigation, Detective Chief Superintendent David Baker (David Threlfall) has to shut down the case when his team cannot discover the identity of the killer. Three years later, another teenager, Dawn Ashworth, is found dead--and the evidence points to the same murderer. This time, the police hone in on a young man named Gavin Hopkirk, who is arrested and eventually confesses--but only to the rape and murder of Dawn Ashworth. While trying to link Hopkirk to Lynda Mann, Baker reads about the work of Leicester University professor Alec Jeffreys (John Simm). The scientist has perfected a process called genetic fingerprinting, in which an individual can be identified by their unique DNA. Can this new technique be used to connect the two crimes? Or will it prove that Hopkirk is innocent and the real killer remains at large?

Running Time: 130 minutes.

Status:  Code of a Killer aired as a two-part mini-series in Great Britain in 2015. Acorn TV began streaming it as a three-part series in the U.S. in February 2017.

Production Notes: (Spoiler alert!) This mini-series is a fact-based account of the first use of genetic fingerprinting to identify and convict a criminal. Following his arrest, Colin Pitchfork pleaded guilty to both murders and was sentenced to life imprisonment in January 1988. In 2016, Pitchfork was denied parole at a hearing, but was moved to an "open prison" according to BBC News. Bestselling author Joseph Wambaugh (The Blue Knight) wrote a non-fiction book in 1989 about the case called The Blooding: A True Story of the Narborough Village Murders.

Our Review: Code of a Killer is a gripping, fact-based drama that hooks the audience from the outset, but becomes more compelling as it progresses. The first episode cross-cuts between Baker's investigation and Jeffreys' DNA research. Each plot is interesting on its own, but it's when they converge in the second episode that the mini-series becomes essential television viewing. The introverted Baker and the absent-minded Jeffreys seem to share little in common at first, but their bond turns out to be an obsessive drive for knowledge. David Threlfall and John Simm are excellent as the unlikely duo. American audiences may be unfamiliar with Threlfall, who starred in the British comedy-drama series Shameless for eleven seasons (when the series was adapted for U.S. television, William H. Macy played Threlfall's role). John Simm has appeared in numerous series which have attracted followings in the U.S., most notably the original Life on Mars, Doctor Who (in a recurring role as The Master), and Prey.

Grade: A.