Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Forget It, Morse; It's Oxfordshire." Endeavour: Series Two (2014)

Two years ago I quite favorably reviewed the pilot film for Endeavour, the sixties-set prequel series to Inspector Morse (1987-2000), the path-breaking 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).

Morse (Shaun Evans): a battered knight, "a shop-soiled Galahad"

My dissatisfaction with Series Two had nothing to do with the acting.  Shaun Evans as the young Morse and Roger Allam as DI 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 served 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).

And 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 NightLaurels Are PoisonMiss Pym DisposesCat 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.

"Nocturne": Morse Attracts an Audience

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 Two 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).

surveying the moral wasteland

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 scripts 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 classic American noir films Chinatown and L.A. Confidential (indeed, the climax of "Neverland" seemed almost like it was ripped from the L.A. Confidential script).

The bloodshed in this episode reached ludicrous levels--by my count this highly implausible plot included one murder-in-the-past and no less than six current murders, along with a suicide, a kidnapping and two attempted murders. This is not even to mention the astonishing Putinesque level of local official thuggery and  corruption the script envisioned, or the now much-overworked theme upon which the plot was based.  If you don't realize early on who the criminal kingpin is, you don't know noir.

"Forget it, Jake; It's Chinatown."


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 individual--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. Yet "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 a sense of basic plausibility.  I hope this sense is recovered in Season Three.  Endeavour still has much that it can offer.

15 comments:

  1. So Curt, to be clear, you really liked the first 8 stories but not the 9th? From your preamble I thought you were going to slam the entire show (all of which has been written by Lewis, which is incredibly unusual for this kind of series, even in the UK). You seem to have retrospectively been harsher on the whole thing just because of the finale. I agree, the last story is overdone - but they decided to build on the conspiracy arc and I also enjoyed some of the other nods to previous stories (did you spot in 'Nocturne' the references to the 'Wolvercote Tongue' and the character later played by Geoffrey Palmer in 'The Infernal Serpent'? I thought these were very well done). As you say, it's not like we don;lt know how this will eventually turn out - but yes, less melodrama next time would be good (and I did like the steadily tarnished poster, a very nice touch).

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    1. Sergio, here would be a grade breakdown from me:

      Endeavour (Pilot Film): A
      Girl: A
      Fugue: A
      Rocket: B
      Home: A
      Trove: B
      Nocturne: A
      Sway: A
      Neverland: D

      So if you look at like that my overall grade for the series probably would be a B+ or more likely an A-. But I really hated the last episode of Season 2! I'm hoping Morse will wake up in bed and start telling Monica about ep 4 and she will tell him, "it was just a dream."

      Yes, I did like the bits about The Wolvercote Tongue. There was a lot of clever stuff in eps 1-3 of season 2, no question. I don't hold some of the modern stuff against them, like the ubiquitous serial killer plots. Serial killer plots often are quite good, and after all in Masonic Mysteries "Inspector Morse" helped get the ball rolling a quarter century ago (by the way I see Masonic Mysteries is hinted at in this series).

      By the way, surely the battered nose bit in Trove was a deliberate nod to Chinatown? I wonder what Colin Dexter makes of all this? I see he's still doing the cameos!

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    2. Yes, it was nice to have the reference to McNutt, wasn't it?

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  2. I agree, I don't know what it is about modern TV, but the dramas have really crossed the line into melodramas. I only watch a handful of programs, and yet virtually every one of them had huge cliffhangers with promised character deaths. I'm more than a bit annoyed with it.

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    1. Yes, Jeff, we do not seem to live in an age of restraint, when it comes to the visual arts! I think people have gotten to expect more and more blood, bodies and foreboding, but I don't believe that's what Morse should be about.

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    2. "and yet virtually every one of them had huge cliffhangers with promised character deaths."

      That's one of the many things I find depressing about modern TV. Killing off regular characters just to prove how dark and edgy your program is. Because nothing is more important than being dark and edgy.

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  3. The final episode was hinted at in the previous episodes as there was important evidence that kept disappearing form the police station, notably evidence Morse himself collected and was holding. The inference beiong that someone in the police station was trying to cover up murder investigations and make Endeavor look bad. I wasn't too keen on how that interesting plot thread culminated in the final episode. The body count was a bit too much, as you say above. I have to as say my favorite of this l series was NOCTURNE. You can imagine why it appealed to me. It has all the trappings that I love in detective fiction -- haunted house, ghost legend, children in peril, etc. I would have enjoyed more between Endeavor and his nurse neighbor in the final episode. Their relationship just sort of piffles away and is dismissed with in the last episode. I've never read any of the Morse books nor do I know much of the series. Was the nurse ever talked about or mentioned? Or was she an invention by Russell Lewis?

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  4. John, frankly, I didn't quite understand how the theft plot thread culminated in the last episode, or even if it did, but then there was a lot about that last episode that didn't make sense to me!

    I thought his relationship with the nurse was appealing, but, as you say, that just piffles away. I think in Season One they did a better job of exploring Morse's personal life. The best personal story went to DI Thursday in Sway, which also had some really good supporting performances.

    There's quite a bit of difference between the books and the films, with the latter being more emotionally engaging.

    Yes, the ghost story in Nocturne was quite neat. Thanks for mentioning that, I didn't quite make that explicit above. I thought that episode was wonderful. It would have made a great novel!

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    1. I guess I was typing too fast and my thoughts weren't conveyed properly in my comment above. I meant that the theft of evidence hinted at a police conspiracy. The final episode I thought would further develop that recurring theft motif in the earlier episodes. I didn't really work out the way I expected. I figured there was going to be a story about a secret society of corrupt policemen who were intent on discrediting Morse hoping to get him thrown off the force or get him killed in the line of duty. I wasn't prepared (and was thoroughly disappointed to be frank) for a story about yet another egocentric mad killer (who talked incessantly like the worst of cliche villains in the climax) and a couple of deranged relatives. That's what I meant when I wrote "I wasn't too keen on how that interesting plot thread culminated in the final episode."

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    2. Oh, yeah, John, I thought too that the thefts plot was going to be resolved in ep 4 and instead, as you so aptly put it, we got "another egocentric mad killer" talking incessantly and Morse screaming, "You're mad!" We've seen this all before, lol.

      I assume they're going to do something with the thefts in series 3, in 2016, but that's a long wait. I hope it's better than what they came up with ep 4.

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  5. I really enjoy the Endeavour series though I admit the plots are sometimes so convoluted that I have trouble keeping them straight. There does seem to be a bit of a rush to explain everything at the end of each episode. I love the actors but, again, my US ear sometimes has trouble picking up what they're saying due to the accents. I have a friend who watches with subtitles for that very reason. I guess it's my love of noir, but I enjoyed the last episode until the cliffhanger, which had me hollering at the TV!

    I loved the old Morse series and have been reading the books in order. They are quite good, but I still prefer Detective Montalbano by Camilleri, both the books and the TV shows.

    Do you plan to review the new Poirot series? Those of us without Acorn only get 2 eps.

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    1. Jack, I've reviewed, I think, the first five seasons of Poirot. I really should do tags, but haven't gotten lazy about that. If you type Poirot or Suchet in the search box, that should take you there.

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  6. Couldn't agree with you more: "Neverland" was screened this evening on one of our local PBS stations and by the end of it we were pretty disgusted, ridiculing the attempt to manipulate us into a craving for the next series. The episode itself was pretty dreffle, and full of implausibilities beyond just the bodycount (e.g., where, in the early 1960s, did she get hold of that gun?) and the very tired theme of past child abuse. The plot had the feeling of a committee effort.

    Roger Allam rocks, though.

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    1. If Roger Allam doesn't return, I hope he gets his own series. He is really good!

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    2. Oh, yes: I know what you mean about the plot holes! I didn't want to get into spoilers, but my mind was reeling from all the improbabilities that had piled up (even more than the bodies) by the end.

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