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A worthy successor to Inspector Morse
on 22 July 2011
This follow-on series to Inspector Morse, which is probably the greatest ever British tv detective show, seemed doomed to suffer in comparison and yet over 20 episodes (and counting) it's more than lived up to expectations. It maintains Morse's languid, well-paced style that's at odds with most modern tv shows with their tight editing, camerawork courtesy of wobblycam, and their obsession with attracting young audiences. It continues to feature familiar actors, has high production values, unintrusive quality music, excellent familiar scenery, and has murder mysteries that are so convoluted nobody can figure them out.
Having praised the show, some aspects of the early episodes are uncertain and it takes a while to perfect the format. Early on there's an understandable need to link to Morse and so there are numerous attempts to shoehorn in references such as scribbled messages by Morse on crossword puzzles. Usually these homages don't work as well as they ought to and so thankfully, when the show finds its feet, references are used less often and with more effect. The oddest and most important of these links is the decision to morph Lewis's character into him becoming Morse. In the earlier series Lewis provided an interesting contrast to his curmudgeonly boss. He was content, was devoted to his family, and he employed dogged police methodology that would find the vital clue to the mystery while Morse was falling in love with the murderer and drinking beer.
Five years on, Lewis's wife is dead leaving him morose, so we see little of his home life other than to stress that he is lonely, and he solves crimes with brilliant deductive analysis. He even drinks lots of beer and listens to Wagner. At first this feels an odd change, as it seemingly ignores the Lewis character, but it makes sense as Morse's love of opera gradually grew on Lewis during the earlier series.
Lewis's sidekick of Hathaway also initially feels wrong, presenting a mish-mash of quirky sidekick features: he's a brilliant, enigmatic, computer literate, chain-smoking, ex-theologian with a funny walk. But when the role settles down, his relationship with Lewis is played effectively with frequent amusing exchanges and sparring when their contrasting viewpoints clash. The series also uses to good effect the various mysterious aspects of his past such as the reason why he gave up on theology. Over the course of the series he develops from being at odds with Lewis, to following his own hunches, to eventually supporting Lewis's hunches, a progression that feels realistic.
Making up the rest of the regular cast are Lewis's shouty boss Innocent, who takes over from Strange's role as the shouty boss. Innocent has little to do at first other than to complain about the press or budgets or whatever is necessary to take a contrary view to Lewis's to browbeat him some more. Pleasingly, her role evolves later on to her being more supportive of Lewis and hence it becomes more realistic. The pathologist Doctor Hobson (reprising her role from the later Morse episodes) is given meatier scenes and she has more of a rounded character than any pathologist on the show has had before. Her friendship with Lewis is believable although the unresolved romantic tension between them works best when it is hinted at rather than dealt with. As their scenes are usually played out over bodies, this means plot exposition can be delivered in a fun way.
As for the individual episodes, they are reasonably consistent. Series 1 and 2 are strong without a weak episode. The stories show a slight decline in series 3 and even more so in 4, but thankfully series 5 returns to the standard of the first two series. Out of the 20 I'd suggest that only series 3's Counter-Culture Blues probably won't get rewatched too often with its terrible acting, silly plot, and unoriginal idea that's been done better elsewhere. Aside from that one, the rest do well to introduce memorable characters while mixing in clues from literate sources such as Greek mythology, opera and art leading to revelations that aren't always the expected one that the most famous guest star did it. With a sixth series already commissioned and hints that a Morse prequel could be appearing soon, I hope that this annual piece of quality tv can continue for a while longer.