As spring rainstorms give way to humidity and mosquitoes, my thoughts turn to mystery and murder, particularly the PBS kind. I know that summer has truly begun when the network’s mystery lineup begins.
This year Grantchester kicks off the PBS summer mystery season on Sunday, June 14th at 9pm. Based on a series of books by James Runcie, the TV series has retained the original premise of a vicar and police detective solving crime in the quintessential British village of Grantchester. (It does not retain all the books’ original characters as last season saw vicar Sidney Chambers (James Norton) replaced by Will Davenport (Tom Brittney).)
Grantchester’s mysteries tend to veer away from violence and gore and towards moral quandaries, ideal thematic ground for a policeman and minister. Despite its cozy trappings of fifties conformity, Grantchester consistently looks more critically at life in this decade by depicting gay characters, women working outside the home, and couples’ marital troubles.
Five seasons in Grantchester contains a fair amount of serialized storytelling as opposed to being a straight procedural. However, it’s not so complex that new viewers should be put off from joining the congregation. The excellent supporting cast make the show’s character work equally as compelling as its mysteries (sometimes more so). Of particular note are Leonard, a fellow clergy member, played to perfection by Al Weaver, Mrs. Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones), the vicarage’s housekeeper, and Cathy (Kacey Ainsworth), the detective’s much-too-good-for-him wife.
Far from a mindless escape from reality, Grantchester takes you to a different time and place with plenty to consider. Tune in and let me know what you think!
Growing up, I did not have cable television (except for when my family stayed in hotels). So the advent of Fall TV meant that there were actually new shows to watch on television every evening of the week (and not just on PBS)! Now we live in a blessed age where approximately three shows a day drop onto streaming platforms and even broadcast networks have started programming more seasonal offerings outside of the traditional September to May schedule. The result is that we’ll all likely have ten shows still on our watch lists when we ascend to the Great Big Couch in the Sky. As an avowed pop culture addict, I wouldn’t choose to live any other way. Still, I look forward every year to seeing what new offerings network television has to offer, creating a schedule of what I want to check out, and determining what I’m willing to commit to (at least for a few more weeks).
Admittedly, there were not a huge amount of shows that
intrigued me enough to watch even the pilot this year. (Optimist’s Translation:
more time to watch streaming shows as they drop throughout the fall and
winter.) That being said, I test drove the police procedural Prodigal Son
that premiered last week.
The premise of Prodigal Son is that Malcom
Bright (Tom Payne) is both a criminal profiler and the son of Dr. Martin Whitly
(Michael Sheen), a serial killer known as the Surgeon who was captured and
incarcerated in the late 1990s. The pilot episode sees Bright working as a
consultant to an NYPD case only to discover that the case is a copycat of four
murders his father committed years ago.
Familiar territory? Yes, and that is one of the show’s
biggest potential pitfalls. A detective/profiler/forensic pathologist with a
personal connection to a killer/landmark case/crime is a trope mystery lovers
have seen before in television, movies, and books. However, the police
procedural format as a whole is not particularly new either and that doesn’t
stop viewers from enjoying interesting characters and unusual cases. More
episodes should help shed light on whether the writers are able to find new
perspectives on these tropes or fail to make them work with these characters
and within the particular environment they’ve created in Prodigal Son.
My other biggest concern with this show is that it too
often uses shock factor to elicit viewers’ emotion rather than relying on the strength
of the writing and acting without layering on gore. For example, the show’s
opening scene depicts Bright entering a butchering process plant that has a
series of severed heads preserved in jars in the background. Obviously, that is
a horrifying concept. However, on screen I couldn’t help but think they looked
like cheap Halloween masks in jars filled with goop. It certainly didn’t scare
me; it just seemed hokey. Similarly, later, the director uses a tight closeup
of Bright’s face screaming, eyes bugged out, after he has a nightmare about his
father. This kind of in-your-face, “isn’t this scaaary?” tactic definitely
backfired for me (and I’d wager for many other viewers as well). Rather than
letting the storytelling and filmmaking stand on its own in evoking reactions
from viewers it seems like the creators are smashing the “break open only in
case of emergency” toolbox too frequently.
The show’s house style is fairly stark, relying on
low-key lighting and heavy shadows and filters that seem to leach almost all
color from the screen. A very minimalist color palette of creams, grays, and
blacks only enhances this effect. Many shots also used shallow focus, meaning
only part of the image is in focus and the rest remains blurry. To be fair, this
cinematographic choice may be trying to illustrate how much viewers don’t know.
We only know a little bit of the history between Bright and his dad and we know
about it primarily from Bright’s perspective. However, I found the frequent use
of shallow focus a bit distracting because it was so pervasive.
Now, what I really liked about the show were the
actors and performances. Michael Sheen’s Dr. Whitly/Surgeon was truly creepy
and seemed to hint at layers of characterization that will (hopefully) develop
over the course of the season. The show also did a good job of using him enough
to establish his backstory and relationship with Bright without letting him
overly dominate the story.
In addition, there are a trio of treasures playing
supporting characters that I hope to see more of in the coming weeks. First, certified
National Treasure Lou Diamond Phillips plays Gil Arroyo, an NYPD cop with a connection
to Bright that’s explained at the end of the pilot. We don’t learn much about
his character in the pilot other than his trust in Bright but I always enjoy
Phillips. He also serves as a more grounded character compared to the
heightened Bright and Whitly and their strange father-son relationship. Second,
the show features Gilmore Girls treasure Keiko Agena who played Lane in
the beloved coming-of-age series. Here, she’s Dr. Edrisa Tanaka, a forensic
pathologist who nervously geeks out over identifying wounds with Bright,
injecting a nice bit of comedy into an otherwise grim show. Finally, Scandal
treasure Bellamy Young, who played Mellie Grant in the political drama, now
plays Jessica Whitly, the mother of Malcom Bright and wife of serial killer
Malcolm Whitly. In the pilot she appears like an aristocratic society mother,
almost as if Edith Wharton’s matriarchs were revamped for the 21st
century. Still, Young’s performance hints at the trauma below the character’s
shiny superficiality and I hope the show will explore that as it progresses.
Verdict: I’m not yet ready to hit the “record series”
button on my DVR. However, I was intrigued enough by the setup and the actors
to keep watching for several more weeks to see how the story develops.