The seeds of any truly wrenching crime story lie in never-forgotten deeds, buried secrets and long-festering emotions. These are at the heart of the appeal of mysteries. More than just a chance for us to solve a brain-jumbling crime, mysteries attract us for their truly purposeful logic, which lies in the way they merge the past and the present. Naturally there’s the charisma of the sleuths to consider — their well-turned wisecracks, eccentric hobbies and dramatic accusations — but the most thrilling purveyors of this unceasingly popular genre have always understood that mystery stories are as much haunted tales as anything else, about the unpleasant ghosts in society that lead citizens to unspeakable acts.
The gentle twist represented by Jericho, the British detective series currently inaugurating the 26th season of that mildly creaky PBS staple Mystery!, is the idea of a time where the past and the future tragically collide, namely England in the ’50s. The postwar period had brought new prosperity and brighter horizons to a populace ready to put behind it a life of bombings and rations, but it also lay the groundwork for people to challenge social mores, for immigrant cultures to seek their place, for certain traditions to change. Naturally, this led to crimes that only the most observant — or most psychologically astute — cop could solve.
Enter Scotland Yard investigator Jericho, played by Robert Lindsay, who in “A Pair of Ragged Claws,” the two-part kidnapping/murder case that has already aired, was introduced to viewers as both a celebrity lawman — now there’s a true marker of a different age, hero cops! — and a loner with a traumatic past. Tagged a “man of action” by the press for his aggressive but successful ways, he is also a war vet who lost the woman he loved to another man, and the son of a detective whose murder he witnessed as a child. In detective-fiction terms, that would label him a “man of baggage,” but Lindsay — a naturally charming actor who resembles a hardened Tyrone Power — knows better than to force the wounded-soul bit, and injects plenty of humor into his tough-but-sensitive cop role. Although often clad in a time-honored mac-and-trilby getup and rarely without a smoke, Lindsay’s mien is too sophisticated for a mere U.K. Sam Spade or Dick Tracy, and that’s fine: “Ragged Claws” and the two-parter starting Sunday, “The Killing of Johnny Swan,” involve finessing crimes with the kinds of tension-filled racial and sexual currents that don’t always require brute force in eliciting information from suspects.
“Ragged Claws” was the story of two crimes — the snatching-for-ransom of a leading banker outside his private social club and the gun death of a Jamaican in the racially mixed Notting Hill area — that inevitably tied together to expose a family’s bitter secrets. “Johnny Swan” is set in the world of competitive running, where a national champion (William Ash) and his brand-new wife are found dead in their honeymoon suite, which leads to a heady swirl of mistaken identity, family estrangement and forbidden appetites. Although convenience creeps in occasionally to keep things moving forward, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt and “Swan” director Nicholas Renton are adept pacers; they know how to suggest enough to keep you smiling confidently that you know the drill, even if you’ll never quite guess how everything pans out.
At its best, Jericho feels like the glue between two eras of crime fighting: the single-hero format that gave us lone-wolf shamuses like the Continental Op and Philip Marlowe, and the group-investigative dynamic of police procedurals (Jericho is often hashing out theories and tracking leads with a team that includes a close chum and the requisite wide-eyed new guy). The problem is Jericho wants to bring together eras in terms of style as well, which leads to a sometimes discomforting mix of classical and modern tacks: scenes lushly photographed in a smoke-and-neon palette to reflect a bygone age of brassy noir are side by side with jumpier, hand-held, evenly lit camera work. The effect is not unlike splicing The Maltese Falcon and Chinatown together. One constant, however, is Dominik Scherrer’s vamping piano-horns-and-strings score, which tries a little too hard to sound romantically hard-boiled, and, instead of goosing the suspense or underscoring the drama, usually just overwhelms everything with its self-consciousness.
Overall, though, Jericho is an agreeable ticket to the shadowy pleasures of crime fiction, the twisty investigations, lurking violence and tragic impulses rooted in personal histories that have enthralled puzzle solvers for more than a century. If it’s not exactly noir and not exactly stirring social drama, at least it’s searching for its own space in an awfully crowded playing field.
Calling Dr. Katz
In the mid ’90s, Comedy Central was trying to carve out a niche for itself in the cable world — beyond merely running old footage of standups on programs like Short Attention Span Theater. The arrival of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist in 1995, therefore, seemed like a welcome hit of laughing gas. A quietly brilliant, hilarious mixture of routines and situation comedy — animated with a wavy-line drawing technique called Squigglevision that resembled the flip-doodle pad of a witty 10-year-old — its premise allowed comedians to do bits, usually their most neurosis-minded jokes, in the format of talking to a therapist (co-creator Jonathan Katz). Ray Romano, Dave Attell, Dom Irrera, Wendy Liebman, Andy Kindler, Joy Behar and others would record their “sessions” first. Then Katz and a handful of actors playing his grown, live-in son (H. Jon Benjamin), his bored receptionist (Laura Silverman) and his best friend (Will Le Bow) would record partly improvised and “retroscripted” scenes inspired by the sessions to form the connecting material about Katz’s outside life. Season one’s six episodes are now available on DVD, with audio commentaries from the cast, including Attell and Romano, plus the original animated short that was Katz and co-creator Tom Snyder’s pitch for the series. Watching Dr. Katz now is not only a reminder of some of the smart programming decisions Comedy Central has made over the years, but when you look at the pull-out ad for the other DVDs available from the network — the roasts, Drawn Together, Crank Yankers, Mind of Mencia — Dr. Katz is also a reminder of what’s missing from the current schedule: shows with less testosterone, fewer taboo-busting shocks and more playfully funny exchanges. Humor, in other words, not just comedy with a capital “C.”
Mystery! airs on PBS (KCET) on Sundays, new episodes at 9 p.m.