The Disappointment of the Year
Reviewed in the United States on 6 September 2021
I understand that there are other-country versions of this series, but I have not seen them. At any rate, the British version should stand on its own feet. This one does not. The problem is genre confusion. Everyone who works in the area of genre fiction attempts to ‘expand the genre’ in order to expand the audience as well as the literary form. Even rehashes of old models do something slightly different (dramatic changes in setting, for example). The model here is something like THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, where you get crime fiction, police (FBI) procedural, psychological thriller, serial killer, and key aspects of mainstream fiction. You can find that novel in multiple sections of a large bookstore. Needless to say, this is not always easy to do and the temptation is always to ‘expand’ by doing something weird, not something clever.
Here we have some traditional things—murders in an academic setting, an amateur sleuth, etc. but then things get weird. We don’t yet know the sleuth’s personal backstory, but it’s a doozie. Did he see his father hang himself? Did he shoot his father in the belly with a shotgun? Why would he want to move back into the family home if it’s the scene of such trauma? He doesn’t get along with his mother, but his mother is, by turns, weird, sympathetic, unsympathetic, and comic. She keeps painting pictures of her dog, Kafka (at least that gives some indication of the inspiration here).
The amateur sleuth works with the local constabulary and has had some sort of relationship with the DCI there, but after six episodes in the first season we don’t know the nature of that relationship. All that we know is that there is some sexual tension, some trauma, some forgiveness, some fantasies. In other words, we don’t understand the relationships between the central characters and hence (since they’re all somewhat weird) we have a great deal of difficulty in caring about them. In addition, we have fantasy scenes (as in scenes that could be straight out of strange high school musicals, talking fish, urgent sex, confetti in the air). In the largely perfunctory subsidiary material accompanying the dvd set, Ben Miller says these are his favorite scenes. Why? Because they’re weird?
One of my favorite actresses, Juliet Aubrey, plays the DCI with whom Ben Miller shares a past. I did not recognize her until I heard her speak because she looks as if she hasn’t washed her hair in a fortnight (and after she did she put it in some sort of tangling machine).
Bottom line: the unique Cambridge setting (unique because Cambridge doesn’t usually allow anyone to film there) is a missed opportunity; it really doesn’t play any role in the story in the way, e.g., that Oxford is a key ingredient in the Morse/Lewis/Endeavour franchise. We don’t care about the characters because they’re weird and the screenwriter/director won’t release information about them which would enable us to understand them. The stories are wildly implausible, generally somewhere between sad, dark and full-on gothic. The stories are generally without any feeling of satisfaction/redemption/cathartic completion. In general—a mishmash, where elements of multiple genres and techniques are thrown into a bag, shaken up, and then dropped unceremoniously on the floor. A major disappointment, particularly with Ben Miller and Juliet Aubrey in the cast—two of my all-time favorites. And as if that wasn’t quite enough, the stories’ musical scores are systematically annoying.
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