Last Night's TV - Case Sensitive, ITV1; Bored to Death, Sky Atlantic
Keep watching this detective
Tuesday 03 May 2011
The controller of BBC1, Danny Cohen, probably doesn't spend much time waiting for London buses. But he will be familiar with the place of the London bus in a popular metaphor, that you wait ages for one, and then two come along at once. Cohen it was who recently opined that there are far too many male detectives in TV crime drama. Some of us would counter that there is far too much crime drama on TV, a rather different argument, but when a powerful executive has a go at the profusion of male detectives, it's at least a nod in the right direction.
Of course, another way of interpreting Cohen's views would be to say that there are too few female detectives, and that's where the London buses come in. His ITV counterparts must have been sniggering into their skinny lattes at Cohen's assertion, because in the last two evenings they have given us two new female detectives, in the notably contrasting forms of Brenda Blethyn, playing Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, and Olivia Williams, as Detective Sergeant Charlie Zailer.
Let the sniggering stop, though, because I can't think what possessed the ITV1 schedulers to place Sunday night's drama Vera and last night's Case Sensitive in such close proximity. Not only did both focus on murder investigations handled by female detectives, both also began with people arriving home to find, with the obligatory eerie musical accompaniment, dead relatives in the bath. In Vera it was a woman's son, in Case Sensitive a man's wife and daughter. To paraphrase a greater fictional woman than either DCI Stanhope or DS Zailer, Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell, one dead relative in the bath might be considered unfortunate, but three is downright careless. There were numerous other parallels, too, between the two dramas: marital infidelities, mistaken identities, even ornithology. So much for ITV as the home of originality.
Still, my colleague Amol Rajan gave Vera a cautious critical thumbs-up yesterday, and I find myself doing the same for Case Sensitive, based on Sophie Hannah's novel The Point of Rescue (as Vera was based on Hidden Depths by Ann Cleeves). The smoothly escalating tension set things up nicely for this evening's denouement, of which we were given a glimpse in the standard "Next Time" teaser. I'm no fan of those teasers, incidentally. By suggesting that we're not yet hooked, and that we must perforce get a hint of what happens next, they somehow manage both to patronise the audience and imply insecurity with the material. Drama producers should trust us to invest in their stories on the basis of what we've just seen; we don't need pointless flashes of what's coming.
Now that's off my chest, back to Case Sensitive. There were just a few too many clever-clever literary references, such as a commanding officer called Proust, and some rather implausible dialogue. "Have you read your Freud?" a creepy criminologist asked Zailor. "I've read his work on Narcissus, yes," she replied. Ah well. Maybe there's room, post-Inspector Morse, for a well-read telly detective.
On the other hand, brainy DS Zailor shouldn't be handling this mystery at all. A detective sergeant might take charge of an investigation into an unexplained death, but as soon as it becomes a suspicious death, as in the case of the corpses in the bath, the gig would be passed to a more senior officer, a detective inspector at least. This I know because of my own informant in the force, a detective chief superintendent, whom I called yesterday to discuss important procedural matters, and who is greatly tickled by the way TV police officers have historically worked in pairs so that one could play good cop and the other bad cop. In real life, he explained, they worked in pairs so that one could have five pints, leaving the other to drive after three.
In fairness, alcohol did play a part in the relationship between DS Zailor and her sidekick DC Waterhouse (Darren Boyd), with repeated embarrassed references to a sexual encounter they'd had the previous Friday evening after she had drunk too much. Her personal life is clearly something of a disaster zone, which of course is another requirement of the TV detective, whatever the gender. The chances of being in a happy long-term relationship, if you're unlucky enough to find yourself solving crimes on television, must be less than one in 50.
The romantic misadventures of journalist- turned-private detective Jonathan (Jason Schwartzman) also feature prominently in the sublime Bored to Death. I took three DVDs on a plane journey last week, two of the best episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and one Bored to Death, and I can give the latter no higher praise than to report that Jonathan's travails made my shoulders heave, with what for my neighbour's sake I hoped was silent laughter, just as much, if not more than, Larry David's in Curb.
Last night's Bored to Death, "The Case of the Beautiful Blackmailer", was the funniest so far. Jonathan revealed to his editor, George (Ted Danson), that he moonlights as a private eye, and George insisted on helping him to bust a blackmail plot. It was exquisitely done. Danson also pops up in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and as Sam Malone in Cheers he long ago staked his claim to a place in the pantheon of TV comedy greats. But it is in George, the dissolute magazine editor, that he has found the role of a lifetime.
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