Two years ago I quite favorably reviewed the pilot film for Endeavour, the 1960s-set prequel series to Inspector Morse (1987-2000), the trailblazing British cop show that was based on the much-admired crime novels of Colin Dexter and starred the late, great John Thaw (1942-2002). I also greatly enjoyed Series One of Endeavour, though somehow I failed to review it here. Series Two, however, I found ultimately disappointing, despite some very high points (episodes 2 and 3).
My dissatisfaction with Series Two had nothing to do with the acting.Shaun Evans as the young Morse and Roger Allam as Detective Inspector Fred Thursday continue to impress, as do Anton Lesser as the martinet Chief Superintendent Bright and James Bradshaw as Dr. Max DeBryn (a character grievously mistreated in the original Morse series, when he was written out to make room for Amanda Hillwood‘s Dr. Grayling Russell, a short-lived, and quite lamentable, tepid romantic interest for Morse). Nor in fact does my dissatisfaction have to do with most of the episodes in Series Two, two of which are especially well-crafted, in my view.
The first episode of the series,”Trove,” about a murder case embroiling a British beauty queen, Diana Day (Jessica Ellerby), had a somewhat dodgy plot, depending on a hugely unlikely coincidence of the tragic Greek sort (and yet one that has been used a number of times now in modern cop shows), forced motivation, and the seemingly obligatory Colin Dexter theme of the beautiful young woman having sex with a muuuuuch older man, but it still entertained (happily, Morse got to do a bit of decoding, a nice nod to Colin Dexter’s puzzle-oriented mysteries).
Episodes two and three were extremely good. “Nocturne,” about a modern murder involving a girls’ school as well as a notorious Victorian-era family massacre, holds tremendous appeal, I think, for any classical mystery fan, drawing as it does on a clutch of classic crime novels set at female academic institutions (Gaudy Night, Laurels Are Poison, Miss Pym Disposes, Cat Among the Pigeons), as well as the real-life Constance Kent murder case–discussed most recently in Kate Summerscale‘s lauded book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher–and Colin Dexter’s own historical crime reconstruction, The Wench Is Dead (itself an homage to Josephine Tey‘s The Daughter of Time). The solution to Morse’s complicated case is classically oriented too.
The third episode, “Sway,” is about a serial killer. Oxford, like other parts of TV England these days, seems to be overrun with serial killers–Endeavour had a serial killer outing in Series One as well–but this one was very well done. Both “Nocturne” and “Sway” were complexly plotted, yet provided readers with the clues by which Morse solves the crimes. (I didn’t get either culprit correct.) “Sway” also had a quite moving World War II back story for Inspector Thursday, involving an employee at the department store that increasingly seems to be at the center of the mystery.Throughout these episodes there are clever and intriguing bits. An advertisement bearing the likeness of the British beauty queen keeps popping up, like F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, and there are mysterious thefts of evidence from Morse’s cases–oh, and Morse gets an appealing girlfriend, too (though of course we know his love affairs never end well).
Unfortunately, all good things must come to and end, and thus we come to episode four, “Neverland.” Here series writer Russell Lewis, who has quite a lineage in British mystery film scripting, having produced screenplays for, besides Endeavour, a raft of British detective series, including Wycliffe (1994), Inspector Morse (the excellent “The Way Through the Woods,” 1995), Cadfael (1994-97), The Last Detective (2004-05), and Inspector Lewis (2010-12), seems to have drawn inspiration less from Inspector Morse than from the much-admired American neo-noir films Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Indeed, the climax of “Neverland” seems almost to have been ripped from the L.A. Confidential script.
The bloodshed in this episode reaches ludicrous levels–by my count this highly implausible plot includes one murder-in-the-past and no less than six current murders, along with a suicide, a kidnapping, and two attempted murders. This is in addition to the astonishing Putinesque level of local official thuggery and corruption the script envisions, and the now much-overworked theme upon which the plot is based. If you don’t realize early on who the criminal kingpin is, you don’t know noir.
The episode’s amazing crescendo of violent death leads us to a contrived double-cliffhanger coda (not to be resolved for two years!) that reminded me of the sort of thing the Sherlock series has been giving us for several years now. But where the larger-than-life character of Sherlock Holmes–never purported to be a realistic character–invites these sort of outlandish plots (after all, Sherlock’s creator gave us Moriarty, Moran, and the rumble at Reichenbach Falls), they seem to me ridiculous when applied to a purportedly realistic police procedural series.
In Season One and much of Season Two I had enjoyed the quiet character development and the plotting ingenuity of Endeavour, but all that vanished with “Neverland.” A television series is inevitably a product of its times, I suppose, and we live, to be sure, in a melodramatic age. However, “Neverland” has whisked Morse away from his roots in the classical detective novel and deposited him in the fashionably dark land of noir, and though I may be alone in this, I am sad to see him trapped there. In straining for high (melo)drama, the series has lost its sense of basic plausibility. I hope this sense is recovered in Season Three. Endeavour still has much to offer.
[Crossposted from The Passing Tramp.]