I’ve been watching the British ITV mystery series Murder City since it began a few weeks ago on BBC America, and am looking forward to tonight’s season 2 finale at 10 to 11:30 EDT. (BBC America has shown all 10 episodes of the program’s first two seasons in weekly installments.)
The show is a rather typical police procedural program in most ways. As the BBC promo site notes, the series "stars Amanda Donahoe (L.A. Law, The Madness of King George) as tough, methodical detective, Susan Alembic, and Kris Marshall (Love Actually, Doctor Zhivago, My Family) as Luke Stone, her highly creative, unorthodox junior partner."
That sounds very ordinary, if course, and in most ways the program is indeed fairly conventional. The crimes are interesting, and there is usually something rather odd about them, but that is actually typical of cop shows today.
However, there is one thing that is a bit unusual about Murder City: Amanda Donohoe’s "tough, methodical detective Susan Alembic" is actually much more interesting than that description suggests. An alembic is an apparatus that refines or distills something else. Susan Alembic’s way of solving crimes is to take the tide of information that comes to her and distill it to understand what it really means. That’s what all good fictional (or real) detectives do, of course, and the name is a good choice.
But where Alembic really shines is in her attitude. The grim crimes with which she’s confronted do affect her emotionally, although they elicit considerably stronger reactions from her gawky, rather unstable partner and subaltern, Luke. Alembic is married, apparently happily so (and is very disturbed when a criminal suspect’s flirtation with her becomes increasingly serious in "Wives and Lovers," season 2 ep. 1, and in particular her own vulnerability to it), and is a highly mature, sensible, confident, and optimistic individual.
These characteristics are unusual for a current-day TV police detective, to say the least, and especially so for a supervisor. Contrast Susan Alembic with Gil Grissom of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Mandy Patinkin’s character in Criminal Minds, for example. Where the latter are grim and let the crimes disturb them deeply, Alembic is able to detach herself in a very healthy and exemplary way.
Donohoe expresses these attitudes superbly in her vocal inflections and bodily posture: she sounds confident even when she may not be pleased with the way things are going, because she knows she’s doing the right thing and therefore all will ultimately work out as well as possible, for she’s not preventing it from doing so; and she stands with a posture that is somewhat jaunty and suggests a healthy dose of skepticism. Often she pulls her head back a bit as if to say, "Did you really mean that?"
Even more impressively, Donohoe’s facial expressions are perfect: her raised eyebrows and typical half-smile suggest a person who knows and understands what’s really going on behind the chaos around her, and who will not be beaten down by either the criminals or the departmant bureaucrats. The camera often reeals an actual twinkle in her eye as she watches another person speak. (The ability to convey thought while listening to another character is to me the mark of a good actor.)
A detective who smiles readily is a precious commodity on television today, and I certainly hope that in any further installments of Murder City this character will retain her charms. Alembic is something of a throwback to great detectives of the past such as Reggie Fortune, Lord Peter Wimsey, Lt. Phillip Columbo, and Banacek, and it would be a very good thing indeed to see more detectives of this sort both in television and in other media such as movies and books.
You can watch the final episode of season 2 tonight on BBC America at 10 EDT. No reruns of the series are scheduled as yet, according to the BBC America website, but the station typically repeats series fairly quickly, so you’ll do well to check your listings for this one.