By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
The recent passing of Inspector Morse seems to stand not only for the end of that worthy series, but (I perhaps rashly judge from limited transatlantic intelligence) for a sea change in English detective TV. The straightforward homeliness that marked the adventures of Morse, Holmes, Marple, Poirot, Jane Tennison and other, mostly mature U.K. sleuths is giving way to more stylized, “youthful” series, influenced in look and mood by The X-Files and Seven and at the same time reflective of contemporary boomtown London, with its fancy restaurants and groovy galleries. This is crime fighting according to The Face, Wallpaper and i-D.
In Second Sight, the latest British import to take up residence on PBS‘s Mystery, Clive Owen (Croupier) stars as Chief Inspector Ross Tanner, who has just been given command of one of those new special-crime units beloved by the creators of modern cop shows. It is charged with solving high-profile, high-priority cases and staffed by well-coifed and modishly dressed mostly young men and women, of whom Tanner is the best-dressed and -coifed of all; he’s young and sexy and psychologically dark, with an inner life as untidy as his improbable glass-bricked, designer-sconced apartment is neat. “Man like you on his own,” says one woman, “doesn‘t make sense. Bridget Jones, Ally McBeal, you’re the stuff their dreams are made of.” Like Jamie Oliver, the Naked Chef, he says “yeah?” at the end of nearly every sentence, and with the slightest alteration he might seem a chef himself, or some hot New London artist or architect or pop musician or journalist. The heart of his darkness is that he might be going blind, a condition he‘s trying to keep a secret for fear of losing his job, although he’s such an awesome genius of a detective, invariably two steps ahead of the next-smartest guy, that one supposes some accommodation would eagerly be made. (“You‘re a bit of a legend, sir,” one underling avers.) He’s also having deductively useful hallucinations related to his condition, which arrive in flashes of white light. We follow Tanner through three cases, linked by the larger narrative of his encroaching blindness, job-loss paranoia and ill-tended personal relations.
The obdurate stylishness of the filmmaking can be distracting, and I found myself at times wishing for the less aggressive, less obviously polished filmmaking of a Prime Suspect or even Hettie Wainthropp Investigates. Yet the series betrays many of the national virtues, being steadily paced and naturally acted, even when the action is unlikely, and the ironic, mocking tone many characters take sounds to my Yankee ears characteristically British. Though it‘s not strictly a whodunit, the show is engaging enough to keep one wondering about guilty parties, and clever enough to subvert and re-subvert one’s expectations. As with much English crime fiction, its subject is not so much the solving of crimes as it is the essential sadness of life, and the surprising ease with which the human machine goes haywire. Depressing stuff, really: Perhaps it‘s the weather.
Tanner’s intuitive brilliance may tend toward the superhuman, but one of the appeals of the genre, after all, is basking in the light of a superior intelligence. (Stupid detectives are not interesting.) You‘ll never be as smart as Sherlock Holmes, but f u cn rd ths, you are smarter than a lot of people, from whom a different sort of sport may be derived. Street Smarts is a syndicated game show in which contestants are asked to predict which of a selection of ordinary folk, seen in prerecorded man-on-the-street-style interviews, will correctly identify a picture of the Washington Monument or be able to use the word orangutan in a sentence. The ultimate premise of the show is that there are people who are not able to say who is buried in Grants Tomb or what is the color of George Washington’s white horse -- “What is a scarecrow designed to do?” was one actual question -- and that this is funny, which (I say to my shame) it sometimes is. “What political philosophy is manifested in the Communist Manifesto?” a lank-haired stoner teen who might have been supplied by Central Casting was asked. “That all cool people must get pot,” he replied, putting an original spin on the idea of “To each according to his needs, from each according to his means.” The questions are not of a substantially lower order than the trivia that make up Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, with the fillip that wrong answers are more amusing when there is no recourse to multiple choice. The game qua game turns on the assumptions the actual, in-studio contestants make about their fellow humans: Will the stoner dude know the meaning of platonic love? Can the black guy define abolitionism? That, in defiance of basest expectations, the first did (“no sex -- it sucks”) and the second couldn‘t may be a lesson to us all in not judging books by covers, but not that much of one. The show works more or less as intended, yet it is soon tiring (more so for the over-amped hilarity of the studio audiencelaugh track) and a little bit ugly, though one must keep in mind that everyone who appears did sign a release form.
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