Favourite Crime TV shows: part 1

When I’m not geeking out over SF TV, I’m indulging my love of crime and mystery TV. I’d like to share with you some of my favourites – and if you’ve never seen some of these, with luck you’ll find something new to watch and enjoy!

Here we go …

Endeavour

What an unlikely show this is! Who’d have thought that a spin-off from the hugely popular but long-finished British crime series Inspector Morse (based on the books by Colin Dexter) would be so amazingly brilliant?

Really, Endeavour is two shows in one: it’s a crime show and it’s a period piece, because it’s set in 1960s Oxford, England. It’s an extended origin story, the tale of how Inspector Morse began his career as a detective.

I really enjoyed the original Inspector Morse series, and I was intrigued to hear there was going to be an origin story filmed to mark its 25th anniversary. I’m not sure what I was expecting, exactly – but I never expected to be totally bowled over by it. The actor cast as young Morse, Shaun Evans, was a totally new face to me. And what a job he had! Following in the footsteps of the iconic John Thaw? Evans must have been shaking in his shoes.

Watching that first episode, though, you’d never know it. His performance is beautifully crafted and nuanced. Not a cheap aping of Thaw, but an intelligent, thoughtful interpretation of both character and actor. And matching him step for step is the wonderful Roger Allam has his superior officer, Detective Inspector Fred Thursday. I’ve praised Allam elsewhere, for his amazing performance as Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV part 1, and he’s just as great here … though the characters are chalk and cheese. But that’s the mark of a real, proper actor, isn’t it? A real actor sheds the skin of the last part and becomes somebody else entirely. Kudos again to Allam!

Of course I can’t go into plot details, because spoilers, but I will say this much: young Morse is most definitely a square peg in a round hole. He makes many of his fellow officers and superiors feel and look stupid, and that’s no way to win friends and influence people. Luckily there’s Fred Thursday, who’s no fool. He understands the diamond in the rough that is young Morse – and so is born a wonderfully unlikely partnership.

The one-off origin story Endeavour rated so well in the UK that it was picked up for a longer run of five episodes. A second season was commissioned, this time for four episodes. And that was so successful that a third season is in the works, to air in 2015. To which I say Phew! because season 4 ended on a serious cliffhanger.

Everything about this series is classy, intelligent and wonderfully British. It’s available on dvd, and a thoroughly recommended purchase.

Wire in the Blood

Here’s another British crime series, this one adapted from the books written by Val McDermid. The series protagonist, played by Robson Green, is Doctor Tony Hill, a clinical psychologist who’s brought in by the Bradfield police to help solve crimes of a psychologically challenging or downright disturbed nature. Hill is an odd man, quite socially awkward, but it’s his off-kilter approach to crime and criminals that gives him the edge when it comes to unravelling the truth and catching the killer.

The first episode in the series is a direct adaptation of McDermid’s book The Mermaids Singing and it is pretty damn disturbing. Someone is kidnapping and murdering people using recreations of medieval torture devices … and not a lot is left to the viewer’s imagination. Interestingly, once this pilot episode and the second episode (also a direct adaptation of a McDermid book) were made, the producers toned down the series’ violence and ended up writing nearly all original material. Kudos to them, they were absolutely faithful to the source material, but they realised that to attract a wider audience the stories needed to be a little less nightmare-inducing. It’s odd, isn’t it, how words on a page have a different impact to images on a screen?

Robson Green is wonderful as Hill. Absolutely plausible, hugely sympathetic, and often very courageous. It’s a challenging role in a challenging series that explores the darkest corners of the human heart and psyche.

All up there are 31 episodes of Wire in the Blood. For the first three seasons Hill’s police partner is Carol Jordan, played by Hermione Norris (who was also in Spooks). After that character moves on he works with Alex Fielding, played by Simone Lahbib. There are several secondary police characters, but the narrative and emotional heart lies with Hill and these two women. Gender issues in the series are well-handled. What’s really nice is that while Hill is clearly exceptionally gifted, intellectually, the police are never dumbed down to make him look smart.

Like the early (and, to me, superior) seasons of the US crime show Criminal Minds, Wire in the Blood isn’t for the faint-hearted. Generally speaking, British television is far less squeamish and politically correct than American network television and that fearless approach to narrative and taboos is on full display in Wire in the Blood.

If you like your crime gritty and dark, your protagonists quirky and your endings not always happy, this series is probably right up your alley. I know it’s right up mine!

Waking the Dead

Still in the UK, I draw your attention to the Waking the Dead. Another police procedural series, this time the crimes are old, cold cases investigated by a special team of detectives and forensic specialists. The team is led by Detective Superintendent Peter Boyd, played by Trevor Eve, and also comprises Dr Grace Foley (Sue Johnston), Detective Inspector Spencer Jordan (Wil Johnson), a couple of junior officers and a pathologist. Over the nine seasons there are some changes of cast/characters, and some of those changes become storylines in themselves.

So … why do I like this series heaps, when other British crime series leave me indifferent? Well, partly it’s because of Trevor Eve. British readers of this blog, and some Australians, might well remember him from his first series Shoestring. In that show he played a computer technician who has a nervous breakdown and afterwards becomes a private investigator (as you do). It was quirky, Eve was great, and I’ll never forget how one of his odd contacts used to call him Bootlace, not entirely affectionately. American readers with a track record of watching obscure genre fare will remember him from the short-lived and highly entertaining series Shadowchasers. He was brilliant in that, with a couple of serious star turns that showcased his range and talent.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise now that the other reason I love this show is because it’s so strongly character-driven. Waking the Dead’s clever, insightful character portraits – Boyd and Grace, in particular, are beautifully written and performed – are married to engrossing, sometimes confronting, crimes and their consequences, which means the viewer’s heart and intellect are equally engaged. Bottom line? It’s really smart tv, and I learn cool stuff about writing when I watch it.

Being British tv, of course it doesn’t pull its punches. But I like that in fiction. If you enjoy gritty crime procedural stories with a strong emphasis on character work and thought-provoking themes, Waking the Dead is a show for you.

Wiseguy

Well, talk about a tv show that came before its time! Like Space Above and Beyond, Wiseguy (created by the late Stephen J Cannell) took chances, pushed the envelope of what was considered standard storytelling fare. It lasted longer than Space, but still fell victim to its courage. It’s fantastic, amazing work with not only a fabulous core cast but some of the most incredible guest stars to be found on tv.

The premise? Well, Vinnie Terranova (played by Ken Wahl) is an FBI agent specialising in organised crime who goes to prison in order to establish his criminal bona fides. The drawback, aside from having to spend time in prison? He can’t tell his mother the truth, so they’re estranged. Upon his release, he meets his handler, one Frank McPike (played by Jonathan Banks, who many will recognise from Breaking Bad). Let’s just say it takes a while for these two guys to warm up to each other. Vinnie’s only other contact with the outside world is Lifeguard, his emergency contact man (played by Jim Byrnes; Highlander fans will recognise him at once!) who becomes one of his best friends.

As I said, Wiseguy was a show ahead of its time – because in a network landscape that focused exclusively on self-contained, episodic ‘black box’ storytelling, Cannell chose to go with extended narratives that played out over eight or so episodes – a kind of novel on tv. Interspersed between the show’s longer narratives – about Vinnie’s crusades against mob bosses and corrupt government officials and con artists – were stand alone episodes that still connected to the ongoing character stories that evolved throughout the life of the show – at least until Ken Wahl left the show following creative differences with CBS.

Because spoilers, I won’t go into specific details about the various story arcs – but I will share with you the calibre of guest stars that worked on Wiseguy. How about: Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Tim Curry, Jerry Lewis, William Russ, Paul Guilfoyle, Ron Silver, Patty D’Arbanville, Glen Frey, Debby Harry, Paul Winfield, Paul McCrane, Robert Davi, Michael Chiklis and David Strathairn.

I have a confession, though. As much as I love Vinnie, my heart truly belongs to Frank. Oh, my, Frank McPike. He has to be one of the best characters ever created for tv. Frank is such a profoundly decent man … but he’s a bit of an Eeyore, a real glass half empty kind of guy. Given what he’s seen I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise, but he really is pretty disillusioned. I think it’s his blossoming friendship with Vinnie that starts to lift his spirits. Vinnie drives him nuts, but he’s also a really good man. Frank has one particular storyline that is so exquisitely ironic, so perfect – it’s a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

I’m also hugely fond of Roger LeCoco (brilliantly played by William Russ), a wonderfully ambiguous character who manages to break pretty much everyone’s heart!

Like all the shows I’m highlighting, Wiseguy is available on dvd – with one caveat. Due to stupid music rights issues and costs, the Dead Dog Records arc has never been released – or, to my knowledge, repeated on tv – which absolutely breaks my heart because it’s Tim Curry, people! Tim Curry in all his glorious glory … sharing a story tag scene with the great Steven Williams – one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

Aspiring writers can learn so much from this show. And anyone who, yet again, loves fabulously character-driven storytelling will find it totally addictive.

The Closer

One of the most popular shows to air on US cable network TNT, and in its sixth season the highest-rated cable drama, full stop, The Closer is a tour de force showcase for Kyra Sedgewick. She plays Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, a former CIA interrogator from Atlanta who’s brought in to head the recently created – and struggling – Priority Homicide Division of the Los Angeles police department. Treated like an outsider from the minute she arrives, Brenda fights for acceptance even as she fights for the victims and their families.

The Closer is a fabulously feminist show in all the best senses of that word. Brenda is a brilliant operator, but she’s not an easy woman to work with, to work for, or have as a subordinate – or a romantic partner. As fierce and unyielding as she is when it comes to bringing down murderers, she’s an acutely feminine woman who’s also a bit lost in her personal life. This makes her one of the most complex and wonderfully realised female characters ever devised and portrayed.

Thanks to creator James Duff, and his terrific production team, the show effortlessly balances tragedy and humour. I’ve watched and rewatched this series a few times, and it still makes me laugh out loud and cry. While the crimes are a mix of one-off and longer arc storylines, there are also long-term character journeys in The Closer.

Honestly, this has to be one of my favourite shows of any genre, ever. Yet again, the women are smart and capable but never at the expense of the men. Every single character is multi-faceted, complex, challenging – just like real people. The first season does a wonderful job of laying the groundwork – and then, in the following seasons (there are seven in all), we get pay-off after pay-off as scenes build on established events. There are times when you’re just hanging on the edge of your seat waiting to see what happens when the other shoe drops – and then you’re either killing yourself laughing, or reaching for a hanky, or picking your jaw up off the ground.

If you’ve never seen this show, do yourself a favour and grab the first season on dvd or Netflix or whatever. I can’t imagine you won’t fall in love!

And that’s it for now. Stay tuned for the conclusion of my list …

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