Detective Television: Driven, Sweet, and Dreamy

My wife loves mysteries on tv and in print. I find I’m drawn into the tv stuff kicking and screaming. But I’m occasionally impressed.

My wife has been following Sherlock on PBS, and I have to admit I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen–the last three episodes. This is riveting stuff: complex and attractive and almost breathless in its pace. I stumbled across Jana Riess’s review at RNS, critical of Holmes as 21st century antihero. And it got me thinking about how derivative and unoriginal this production is. I read most of the Sherlock Holmes stories in college. But that was a long time ago, and I’m not sure I have all the particulars still in my head. Ms Riess is right that Benedict Cumberbatch plays the 21st century incarnation as something of a CSI: Greg House. (Naturally, House himself is a medical derivative of the Baker Street detective.) Or maybe he’s just written that way. Probably something of both. And it’s all based on the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, so of course it’s derivative. And the scarf, but no hat for the tousled hair: just like the Doctor. Can a derivation be good? It can certainly engage. The end of series II last night was certainly psychotic. Yes, that’s the word. I’ll have to catch the earlier episodes, I think.

Sleepless the other night, I caught two Honey West reruns at 2am. A decade before Charlie’s Angels, Aaron Spelling gave it an early try. Anne Francis was sparkling with kicking butt and mobile phones and tear gas that doesn’t water the eyes. But that wasn’t enough to float another derivation from James Bond and Emma Peel. The network rendered judgment: cancelled after one season. Still, if this series were resurrected, with good writing and an actor who could pull it off like Anne Francis, I’d watch it. And that snappy jazz theme: you sure don’t hear that on tv anymore. But a half-hour show to solve a case? With the intrusion of our corporate masters into the television waves, that’s enough for a set-up, but not much more.

My favorite of all this year’s tv is Awake. (But admittedly, I don’t catch much.) Unlike the others, this series is almost totally original–only the detective character is derivative. But really, who can they cast to give such an interesting pair of lives: a doctor? a superhero? a singer? I’ve been catching the episodes “on demand,” which is another innovation of which I approve. I’m up to episode eleven, and as the conspiracy reveals, I’m finding it a bit too predictable.

Still, Jason Isaacs is a brilliant actor. The whole cast is great. The writing lags a bit behind the ideas. As a science fiction fan I love great ideas, and this is a great idea, of a police detective who wakes in alternate realities: one in which an accident kills his son, and the other in which his wife is dead. After six months of fictional time, the guy’s not REM-deprived, so he’s dreaming effectively somewhen. Overall, I’d say A on concept, A on casting and acting, a solid B on writing. And that writing grade would probably be an A-plus on tv’s curve.

Episode eleven was a little too transparent, but Mr Isaacs delivered a tour-de-force acting performance. This guy can do just about anything well: grim and hard-boiled cop, emotional crash, a smile for his son.

I hear the network is cancelling the series. Ah well, whoever said television was any good anyway? Just when I was thinking that maybe there was something good on tv, even detective stuff, maybe I’ll just go back to reading books. Corporate can’t cancel great fiction.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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1 Response to Detective Television: Driven, Sweet, and Dreamy

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