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.
The relationship of people who think they know something to people who they think know less is at the conceptual heart of Doc, a new 13-episode series from Pax TV, starring country singer Billy Ray Cyrus as a small-town doctor in crazy Manhattan. Certainly it is easy, in a reflexive way, to feel superior to Billy Ray Cyrus, with his defiant mullet and “Achy Breaky Heart.”
Cyrus plays Dr. Clint Cassidy (the name sounds almost scientifically constructed), who arrives in New York from Montana wearing a big Resistol hat and a perfect four-day beard to romance the big-city girl he met out West. He winds up working at an HMO — the modern dramatic equivalent of SPECTRE — and, as one might expect, goes against its profits-before-people grain: He makes house calls, pays for a poor woman’s MRI out of his own pocket and, mirabile dictu, he listens. “Science is fine, as long as it doesn‘t get in the way of helping a patient,” quoth the good doc. Frank Capra is to blame for this, I suppose — Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and all that — though there are elements as well of McCloud and Crocodile Dundee and Highway to Heaven. (Pax is partially a Christian network, home to shows like Praise and Worship and I Do Believe.) “Wisdom is found in those who take advice — that’s from Proverbs,” Cassidy tells a thief he has just disarmed. “The Bible, you ever heard of it? A lot of good stuff in there, like ‘Thou shall not steal,’ you know what I mean?” Wise though he may be, his naivete, or shall we call it innocence, is monumental — not only has he never been to the big city, he appears never to have watched television or read a newspaper. We see him gaping at big buildings, gawking at a girl with blue hair, balking at high prices, puzzled by nouvelle cuisine, tripping over a bum. We see his natural friendliness and compulsive plain-speaking confusing, frightening, occasionally converting the hard and cynical people of New York. Cassidy is by contrast a natural man, a country man, full of love and trust. He orders his steak well done, sleeps for a night in Central Park. His very existence is an affront to the air-kissing, ass-kissing downtown phonies among whom his lady love, “the new wonder-girl features editor of the hottest magazine in the country” — the Jean ArthurBarbara Stanwyck role — lives and works. “I never even believed people like you really existed,” someone says. “I hate to spoil your day,” replies Cassidy. “There‘s a whole country full of us out there.”
It’s a frightening thought, this army of mulleted country singers, feeling our pain, speaking their minds, turning every woman‘s head. (Maybe it’s time for me to try a mullet.) As an actor, Cyrus is not bad, in the strictest sense of “not bad”; he even has something of the ingratiating technical awkwardness and yes-ma‘am vibe of Hollywood Elvis Presley. The pilot episode, at least, was professionally and handsomely constructed, and the show is certainly genial — “family-friendly,” which is to say, offensive only to those who like their fictions complex, ambiguous, subtle or real. You know who you are.