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REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 7, 1993) October 18, 2014

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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INSPECTOR MORSE

Series 7 (1993)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

One of great things about UK television shows is their flexibility, not only in a ways they are created and aired, but also in a way they tend to end. In case of Inspector Morse, the ending appears to have less to do with decreasing ratings or popularity and more with the general fatigue of the cast and crew. From 1987 to 1991 number of episodes per series was rising, making the task of maintaining high quality increasingly difficult. Seventh series, originally aired in the beginning of 1993, proved to be the last regular season of the show. Only three episodes were made, but those three kept the general tone and high standards nowadays associated with Morse.

The first episode, Deadly Slumber, is one of the more straightforward murder mysteries of the show. Although beset with usual red herrings, the case of a murdered physician is actually quite simple and Morse doesn’t have to work that hard in order to find the actual suspect. Brian Cox, actor who never fails to leave the impression, plays rather complex character – rough man with terrible personal grudge and who appears capable of a homicidal act, yet at the same also happens to be dedicated family man and prone to generosity. The rest of the cast is also quite up to the task. After the case is finally resolved – in rather simple way, uncharacteristic for Morse – writer Daniel Boyle and director Stuart Orme still have time for one of the most poignant scenes of the entire show. Because of that, Deadly Slumber is the best episode of the series.

Second episode, The Day of the Devil, is as close as Inspector Morse ever comes to “jumping the shark”. The beginning actually reveals the main villain who also happens to be one of the most frightening and the nastiest characters of the show. Devil-worshipping convincted serial rapist, played by Keith Allen, escapes from psychiatric hospital and makes his to Oxford, using carefully planned disguises. For most of the part John Thaw looks like his character was accidentally teleported into another fictional universe, one belonging to 1990s Hollywood thrillers about unstoppable and seemingly all-powerful serial killers. However, the episode gradually shifts to more familiar territory of red herrings and less obvious plots and motives. Allen, one of the more colourful British character actors, leaves quite an impression as embodiment of diabolical evil. His performance is, however, well-matched by actors in less flamboyant roles. Harriet Walter is very good as prison psychiatrist and villain’s presumed target, same as Richard Griffiths who plays very convincing priest and expert for the occult. The episode could have been much better if not for the ridicoulously over-the-top black mass scene that looks like it was borrowed from cheap grindhouse horror film. Thankfully, very interesting twist improves general impression, just like the ending that, together with the character of tough female policeman played by Katrina Levon, looks like homage to Silence of the Lambs.

John Thaw in prevous two episodes actually didn’t have much opportunity to display emotions. In the last episode, conveniently titled Twilight of the Gods, Morse’s character is again given opportunity to express his love of opera. This is provided by Welsh diva, played by Sheila Gish, who arrives to Oxford University in order to receive honorary degree only to be shot by a sniper during the public ceremony. Morse quickly overcomes the shock and uses his academic connections and experiences to determine possible motive and perpetrator. Just like in many previous episodes, he discovers that actual motive for the shooting have very little to do with the actual victim. Despite that, the audience, especially those familiar with certain traumatic chapters of 20th Century history, will relatively quickly connect the dots and solve the mystery. The episode is the best when it shows how the characters come to such conclusions, and the script by Julian Mitchell provides plenty of opportunity for lighter, humourous scenes, especially those dealing with members of diva’s entourage and their implied or explicit homosexuality. Acting is generally good, whether it is old John Gielgud in rather not that important role of university chancellor and very young Rachel Weisz whose character mostly amounts to nothing more than eye candy. Robert Hardy, on the other hand, is slightly over the top as vulgar media tycoon, although it could be said that his character was based on real-life (and equally flamboyant) Robert Maxwell. After this episode, Inspector Morse continued through television specials instead of regular seasons; however, if Twilight of the Gods should be seen as the finale of regular series, it should also be said that Morse ended on positive note.

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 6, 1992) October 13, 2014

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INSPECTOR MORSE

Series 6 (1992)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

Even the most successful television shows don’t last forever, and their creators and producers should be aware of it. Those among them who are truly responsible, sooner or later, begin to prepare audience and themselves for inevitable end, or, at least the major transformation that could be interpreted as such. One of such examples could be seen in the sixth series of Inspector Morse. Despite previous seasons never shying away from showing the private life of title protagonist, many details – his name, his past and his background – remained a mystery. Sixth series began to answer some of audience’s questions about their favourite television detective, probably reflecting creators’ view that there will be less and less opportunities to do that in the future.

Dead on Time, first episode of the series, explains why Morse, despite being, sometimes dangerously, attracted to women, ended alone instead of securing permanent female company through marriage. The answer to that question is given in the form of middle-aged, yet attractive woman (played by Joanna David, whose eyes and other features might be familiar to fans of her daughter Emilia Fox of Silent Witness fame), who happened to be Morse’s fiancee three decades ago. Occasion in which Morse meets his former flame isn’t the happy one – she happens to be involved in the case of suicide which, later, turns out to be staged, and reveals the series of tragic events and general misery that makes Morse’s lonely life quite happy in comparison. Despite high amounts of melodrama, Daniel Boyle’s script manages to make plot and characters quite believable. The acting is top-notch, especially in the case of John Thaw whose character finally snaps in one scene forcing Kevin Whately as his loyal, clear-headed and always dependable Sergeant Lewis to save the day. Dead on Time, despite its general bleakness, is one of the better episodes of the whole series.

Happy Families (whose title is more than obvious node to famous opening lines of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) looks much worse in comparison. It begins with a rich industrialist and his dysfunctional family, made of characters – with exception of mother played by Anna Massey – who try very hard to make themselves as unsympathetic to the audience as possible. Viewers won’t be surprised nor displeased when they find most of them suffering violent ends before closing credits. However, just like most other Morse episodes with high bodycount, Happy Families is of inferior quality. The motives for murder, the actual murderer and violently melodramatic finale provide plenty of “deja vu” to experienced viewers. The general impression is helped only by superb acting.

The Death of the Self tries to repeat previous series formula by providing Morse with spectacular change of a scenery. This time, the trip abroad is more to Morse’s liking and the snobbish opera-loving detective not only has opportunity to visit pretty sights of Northern Italy but also to meet British expatriate opera singer played by Frances Barber. Unfortunately, the plot that provides an excuse for Morse’s adventures in Italy – possible murder among rich clients of British self help guru and former criminal – is rather weak and the characters look almost parodical. Not even the talents of Michael Kitchen, who plays Morse’s manipulative adversary, can’t help this episode.

Absolute Conviction brings the audience back to Britain, and actually begins in one of its less pleasant locations – a prison. Beginning, in which character played by young Sean Bean gets mysteriously trapped in his cell, clearly indicates that something bad and violent is about to happen. When it does, Morse is forced to investigate murder surrounded by some of the people he had put behind bars. Script by John Brown nevertheless uses opportunity for some socio-political commentary – the prison is minimum security, run by kind-hearted  and socially conscious reformer who happens to be a woman; Morse has to deal with over-zealous subordinate who thinks little of bending law or respecting people’s rights; the criminals are fraudsters who symbolise the greed of Thatcher’s Britain. Just like in many Morse episodes, the trigger for violent events has little do with the obvious and the ending is melodramatically violent. The audience, however, might enjoy great directing by Antonia Bird and some fine acting, especially by actors who only later became famous, with Jim Broadbent as the most recognisable example.

Cherubim & Serafim, the final episode of the series, clearly puts the Morse in 1990s and shows how the world changed during previous seasons and it also provides so far the greatest insight into Morse’s past. The audience finally meets some members of Morse’s family; again, the occasion is not a happy one – suicide of his beloved 15-year old step-niece. Morse’s attempt to informally discover motives for such unexplainable act only leads to formal investigation, when similar cases point to experimental drug being distributed at popular rave parties. The plot is actually weak, but it serves as a good opportunity for Morse to reflect on his own youth and how the culture and general mores drastically changed, yet the adolescent angst remained the same. Morse’s musings on the subjects are presented through conversations with his trusted Sergeant Lewis, whose own children have grown and must face the same teenage ordeals. The plot resolution is weak, although it literally “goes with a bang”. The audience will, however, be pleased to find that scriptwriter Julian Mitchell recognised that Lewis can’t remain Morse’s subordinate forever and the scenes dealing with his Inspector’s exam clearly point that he would pick up Morse’s torch and become protagonist of his own show.

 

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 5, 1991) September 13, 2014

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INSPECTOR MORSE

Series 5 (1991)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

Fifth series of Inspector Morse faced show’s creators with the another challenge of sticking to the familiar and popular formula while providing audience with something new. The answer to that was apparently very simple. They decided to make Morse “bigger”. This was achieved in two ways – by increasing number of feature-length episodes from four to five and through larger budgets, that would become apparent in the last episode of the series.

The series begins with Second Time Around, episode that could be described as “standard” Morse mystery, with rather simple plot but very well-written and, what is even more important, well-acted characters. Violent death of veteran police official leads Morse to re-open the investigation of unsolved child murder and also gives opportunity to display protagonist’s liberal views on law enforcement and criminal justice (which could be interpreted as creators’ attempt to atone for Morse’s Dirty Harry-like antics in Series 4). Those views are highlighted thanks to the presence of Morse’s old and more conservative colleague, played by Kenneth Colley (best known as Admiral Piett and original Star Wars trilogy). His presence makes the episode interesting, together with dependable character actor Oliver Ford Davis (another Star Wars veteran) as one of murder suspects. Young Christopher Ecclestone also does very good job out of otherwise thankless role of a disturbed youth.

Fat Chance provides the series with one of the weakest script, at least to those who watch the show while expecting something like complex and intriguing murder mystery. It is also an episode in which the authors try very hard to wear left wing and social liberal views on their sleeves. It reflects in plot that connects struggle for female priesthood in Oxford with slimy entrepreneurs who exploit frustrations of overweight women and peddle dodgy slimming products. The way those two plots are connected is rather easy to guess and, actually, nothing much happens in the episode. The fans of the show, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t mind much. The acting and direction is very good and the episode turns to be one of those rare occasions in Morse when the titular character actually gets the “girl” – in this case played by charming Zoe Wanamaker.

Who Killed Harry Field? is an episode title that suggests lack of inspiration. Despite that, the script by Geoffrey Case successfully connects the subplots involving world of art with subplots of political corruption. The episode is also one of the first to acknowledge that Oxford with its ancient architectures and traditions didn’t completely stick to the past, and that at least some of its citizens got involved with Swinging Sixties. Much of the plot actually deals with the way baby boomers had to abandon bohemian lifestyle and anti-establishment ideals of their youth and had to (or failed to) conform to 1980s realities. Like in many Morse episodes, murder mystery is not as interesting as characters; the latter again provide opportunity for some fine acting. The most memorable is Freddie Jones as murdered victim’s father. On the other hand, the subplot dealing with Morse’s loyal Sergeant Lewis seeking promotion and transfer from his boss looks more a way to fill running time and ends rather predictably, since most fans of the show also happen to be fans of Kevin Whately.

Greeks Baring Gifts is a superb example of a murder mystery that allows scriptwriters to cover many different social issues. Script by Peter Nichols begins with a killing of a Greek immigrant cook that hints at multiculturalism in modern Britain and related conflicts to be the main issue. After a while Morse’s investigation and the plot makes a different turn and plot explores the conflict between the “old money” establishment and self-made entrepreneurs from working class. Experienced Morse viewers know that the resolution of murder mystery has little to do with both subjects, just like the presence of dark and sinister-looking James Faulkner (now best known as Pope Sixtus VI in Da Vinci’s Demons) as the most obvious villain points towards someone else as actual murderer. The end of the episode is one of the more melodramatic and one of the most disturbing; despite that Greeks Baring Gifts is one of the better written, directed and acted Morse episodes.

The season finale, Promised Land, represents greatest departure – both for Morse and its titular character. Death of imprisoned gangland boss and possible judicial review send Morse and Lewis to Australia in order to protect key witness who lives under new identity. This plot allows the most spectacular change of scenery – small town in Australian outback proves to be very different from Oxford, and the script by Julian Mitchell uses opportunities to explore many cultural differences. The best thing about the episode is a way it highlights differences between Lewis and his superior – while Morse, being high culture snob, doesn’t like common Australian cuisine or country music, his loyal working-class sergeant appears more in tune with the locals and their way of life. This also allows for a rare scene of male cop bonding between Lewis and his local colleague (played by John Jarrat). The acting in the show is great and the most recognisable face belongs to young Noah Taylor playing one of the more straightforward characters of his career. The episode ends with one of the more spectacular shots of the entire show, that connects the Australian setting with titular character’s love of opera.

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 4, 1990) August 31, 2014

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INSPECTOR MORSE

Series 4 (1990)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

Fourth season (or series) of popular television drama is usually the point when the show “jumps the shark”. The creators and producers are burdened with increasingly difficult task of satisfying the target audience with familiar  plots and characters while avoiding repetition and boredom at the same time. Some shows avoid this trap, while some don’t. Inspector Morse, juding by its fourth series, did it only partially.

Four episodes (which are, actually, feature-length television films) continue to stick to the  formula established in previous three seasons. The most noticeable difference in comparison with Series 3 is the absence of pathologist Dr. Grayling Russell; with her gone, fourth season lacks continuity and the main characters loses any excuse for not looking at other women. By that point, Colin Dexter ran out of novels for screenwriters to base episodes on, so it reflected in even more creative freedom. The episodes at times look very different, but their content at times succumbs to unnecessary melodrama and unconvincingly violent resolutions, just like in first two seasons.

The Infernal Serpent, the first episode, begins very promisingly and actually turns out to be the best. Death of an respected environmentalist minutes before the important public announcement leads audience to believe that the subject is going to be major scandal. Director John Madden dutifully plays to those expectations by providing some quite suspenseful scenes in which John Thaw’s middle-aged police official have to deal with black operatives and their rather unsubtle efforts at major cover-up. But, just like in most good episodes of Morse, the thing that triggers such course of events is coincidence. The real mystery Morse has to uncover is much closer to home and related to Morse’s old friends at Oxford University and their dysfunctional family lives. Like in many Morse episodes, music is an important part of background and the acting is superb, especially with Geoffrey Palmer as sinister Oxford don.

The Sins of the Fathers features rather weak and not very convincing “whodunnit”, which is, on the other hand backed by an interesting plot background, providing some insight into class differences and transformation of capitalism in late 20th Century Britain. The murders seem repetitive and too theatrical, but the general impression is again rescued by excellent acting. Veteran Lionel Jeffries gives great performance in the role of old patriarch, but the most impressive is Lisa Harrow as one of suspect’s wives (and not only in scene when she swims in her house pool in front of Morse’s ogling eyes). Director Peter Hammond, on the other hand, tends to show scenes through distorted glasses and lenses, which, at times, looks unnecessary and diverts too much attention from the actual plot.

Driven to Distraction could be best described as Inspector Morse’s attempt to emulate Dirty Harry. Plot, characters and even some scenes tend to resemble Don Siegel’s 1971 classic thriller. Oxford women become prey of a vicious serial killer. Morse, just like Harry Callahan, quickly finds the most likely perpetrator who is, just like Scorpio in original film, obviously and demonically evil (in this case, played by always, Patrick Malahide, always dependable in such roles). Morse during his investigation feels too burdened with paperwork and legal requirements so he decides to simply cut certain corners, even it means obvious breech of law and someone’s constitutional rights. In doing so he receives support from the character of female police detective (played by Mary Jo Randle) who is supposed to represent modern and “progressive” aspects of law enforcement. Driven to Distraction strays from Dirty Harry formula only at the end, in well-thought plot twist which is, unfortunately, wasted in rather directed scene of melodramatic confrontation.

Masonic Mysteries, final episode of the series, begins with Morse  in romantic relationship with a woman who shares his love of opera. Experienced viewers know that this is too good for Morse to last or to be true and Morse’s girlfriend (played by Kevin Whately’s real life wife Madelaine Newton) predictably becomes murder victim. To make even worse for Morse, he actually becomes main suspect, which means that he will be investigated by Chief Inspector Bottomley (played by sinister-looking Richard Kane). To make things even worse, Morse appears to be victim of a diabolical set-up with everyone but his most loyal associates doubting his innocence. Script by Julian Mitchell drops hints about major conspiracy – echoing real life debates about undue influence of Free Masons in British law enforcement – but the resolution of mystery is even less convincing; Morse became target of psychopathic supervillain whom he had put away many years ago. Character, even when played by Ian McDiarmid (best known as Palpatine in Star Wars film series), however, fails to rise over the cheapest comic book cliches and the way episode (otherwise well-directed by Danny Boyle) ends is quite disappointing.

 

 

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 3, 1989) August 21, 2014

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INSPECTOR MORSE

Series 3 (1989)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

Third series (or season) of Inspector Morse shows what a successful television show looks like after reaching maturity. The creators, by that time unburdened with the need to blindly follow Colin Dexter’s original novels, had and with the character and setting already established, had more creative freedom. That resulted in a show  looked diverse than in previous two seasons, while the season worked as much more coherent whole in terms of plot.

The most noticeable change could be seen with the introduction of another recurring character – Dr. Grayling Russell (played by Amanda Hillwood), pathologist who replaces Morse’s old friend Max and who happens to be an rather attractive woman. Morse, being notoriously weak towards the opposite sex, can’t ignore it and the scripts of all four episodes chronicle how their relationship slowly evolves from professional towards something more personal, dropping all kinds of charming little hints about the way they differ in lifestyle, worldview and musical tastes. Third series also introduces audience and fans to some previously neglected details of Morse’s past, namely his Oxford studies and befriending people from academia, while retaining mystery about his first name.

First episode, Ghost in the Machine, is the best. Julian Mitchell’s script begins with rather mundane theft of aristocrat’s erotic art leading to complicated murder mystery which forces Morse to use small army of policemen at victim’s vast country estate (which still doesn’t prevent another murder). The case, which also provides some insight into Oxford University’s inner workings and office intrigues,  is resolved in a simple but elegant manner and features an excellent acting by Patricia Hodge in the role of aristocrat’s “stiff-upper-lip” wife. The colourful locations, which feature old architecture,  also play an important role – not only by providing a specific atmosphere, but also  by being the key for resolving mystery.

Second episode, The Last Enemy, is significantly worse, and this could be, in most likelihood, explained with its basis in Dexter’s novel The Riddle of the Third Mile. Writer Peter Buckman changed the some of important details from the book, yet it retained its complex plot, making it almost incomprehensible for most of the average viewers. Its resolution at the end proves to be quite banal. The general impression of the episode is rescued by fine acting, especially thanks to Barry Foster, one of Britain’s most reliable and most recognisable character actors, as Morse’s old friend.

Third episode, Deceived by Flight, benefits from show producer’s increasing creative freedom. The basic idea for the plot was inspired by Kevin Whately, actor playing  Sergeant Lewis, Morse’s loyal sidekick, and his real-life love for the game of cricket. Dexter devised the basic plot that would revolve around the cricket match and even allow Whately to display some cricket skills with his character infiltrating cricket team as undercover investigator. Anthony Minghella provides good script, yet the most impressive of all is the cast, that, among others, includes Sharon Maughan as murder victim’s wife and one of the most intriguing of all Morse’s women. One of the smaller parts is played by Nathaniel Parker, who could later star in his own British police show as Inspector Lynley.

Final episode, The Secret of Bay 5, is a rather loose adaptation of Dexter’s novel The Secret of Annexe 3. It begins with one of the most intriguing openings in the show – scene of Mel Martin in underwear  suggesting that her character would play important role in the plot, either as victim or femme fatale triggering murders. By the time one of those two assumptions is revealed to be correct, Martin is, for the most part, absent from the screen. The other characters and fine plotting, however, keep audience’s attention. The episode’s ending – which often happens to be weakest element in the show – is here quite satisfying, with mystery being revealed through Morse’s clever trick rather than through convenient coincidences. Although not the best, this episode concludes the general impression of Series 3 as the best in show until that point.

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 2, 1987-1988) August 11, 2014

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INSPECTOR MORSE

Series 2 (1987 – 1988)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

 

In the history of most successful or long-lasting television shows, second season often happens to be the most important. Only after the first season, which in many ways serves as prolongated pilot episode, the surviving show is deemed successful, accepted by audience and respected by its creators. That also means that the second season often looks much better than the first. Such examples can be found in non-standard (or non-US formats), and one of them is second series (or season) of Inspector Morse.

The season was composed of four episodes (actually, feature-length TV-films), with first – The Wolvercote Tongue – aired on Christmas Day 1987, while the remaining three – Last Seen Wearing, Settling of the Sun and Last Bus to Woodstock – aired in March 1988. The Wolvercote Tongue had the distinction of being the first Morse episode based on the original television script (by Julian Mitchel) instead on Colin Dextrer’s novels (later being novelised by Dexter into The Jewel That Was Ours). The somewhat greater length of second series, unlike with other TV shows, didn’t manifest itself in poorer quality. On the contrary, Series 2 was better than Series 1. The most important reason for that was greater variety of characters, plots, and most importantly, plot resolutions.

Character of Chief Inspector Morse, played by excellent John Thaw, is, just like  in Series 1, the main asset of the show. In Series 2 he is less annoying than in Series 1, and his flaws – unsuccessful womanising and drinking – play significantly lesser role  in the plot. Mysteries aren’t solved through sudden revelations and those revelations don’t lead to last-minute violent confrontations. The plots seem more realistic – apart from The Settling of the Sun, crimes just happen because of unfortunate yet mundane coincidences rather than because of complex conspiracies or someone’s psychopathic malevolence. Greater variety of the Series 2, on the other hand, also leads to quite different levels of quality for each individual episode.

The Wolvercote Tongue might have been created, at least partially, with international audience in mind. For the first time Morse and his Oxford surroundings can be seen through outsiders’, or to be precise, non-British perspective. It is provided by group of elderly American tourists, which also allows opportunity for some humour based on cultural differences. The episode, that features very good Kenneth Cranham as their unfortunate tour guide, however, fails in its last segment because of unnecessary additions to boycount; the last murder is also directed very poorly.

Next episode, Last Seen Wearing, looks like major improvement. The plot about teenage girl’s disappearance leading to murder investigation might look too conventional and not very interesting, yet the episode was directed by very capable Edward Bennett. Script by Thomas Ellice also allowed enough space to give characters and their situations some broader social context – mainly through display of yuppie culture and “wild” capitalism of Thatcher’s Britain, although subplots dealing with religion and the way it affects some of characters’ lives might seem dated and less comprehensible to today’s, more “hip” and secular audience. The episode features very good cast, including young Elisabeth Hurley as free-spirited boarding school pupil.

Settling of the Sun, on the other hand, represents disappointment. The plot, that deals with some unpleasant and apparently unresolved issues of World War Two, is a complete mess. It is incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with 20th Century history; to those who are, some plot issues are telegraphed well in advance. The direction by Peter Hammond is dreadful, especially in the first scene that introduce some characters and never bother to explain why Morse happens to be close to them. As the episode goes on, it becomes less and less believable, most notably with outrageous way one of characters tries to deceive Morse (and the rest of Oxford) about his identity; subplot involving international intrigue is just icing on the cake. Amanda Burton, actress who would later star in Silent Witness, is here wasted in thankless (and rather unecessary) role of eye candy. Settling of the Sun is definitely the worst episode of the series and the worst episode of the show by that point.

Impression of the Series 2, or Morse in general, is rescued by Last Bus to Woodstock, based on the very first of Colin Dexter’s novels. Some might argue that the plot is conventional, generic and quite mundane. Yet the simplicity allows almost every character in the plot to be well-rounded and convincing, together with their motives. It also allows opportunity for some fine acting, most notably by Anthony Bate as emotionally vulnerable Oxford professor and Holly Aird as academically bright yet romantically inexperienced student. Because of that episode, Series 2 of Inspector Morse could be seen as one of rare examples of television saving the best for last.

 

 

 

REVIEW: Inspector Morse (Series 1, 1987) August 3, 2014

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INSPECTOR MORSE

Season 1 (1987)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2014

 

Once upon a time there was a huge difference between US and British crime/mystery television shows. The latter were being significantly shorter with greater emphasis on quality over quality. Or, in other terms, instead of having seasons made out of 20+ episodes of varying (and often decaying) quality, British preferred to have a season made of few great episodes, often in formats closer to an average US TV-film or short mini-series. One such example can be provided by Inspector Morse, British TV show based on the novels by Colin Dexter and starring John Thaw as titular character.

The first season (or “series” in British terminology) was aired in January of 1987, consisting of three 100 minute episodes – The Dead of Jericho, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn and Service of All the Dead. In it the audience was introduced to Inspector Morse, detective of Thames Valley Police. This was not the first major police character in Thaw’s career; he had already gained popularity by playing Jack Reagan, tough leader of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad in 1970s show The Sweeney. Morse was, however, much different – a kinder and gentler policeman working in Oxford, which provided picturesque setting of university town more peaceful and idyllic than mean streets of London. Morse’s character was seemingly in tune with that place – in first three episodes he was portrayed as connoisseur and fan of high culture, including classical music, ancient Greek and Samuel Beckett’s plays. Yet, John Thaw’s Morse was also different from typical British countryside detective by having some character traits hardly in line with “stiff-upper-lip” stereotypes. In first series Morse doesn’t hide his love of bottle, matched only by his love of opposite sex, which often leads him towards dangerous situation and quite unprofessional behaviour, including advances towards female suspects in murder investigations. Due to seemingly low crime rate, Morse can afford such cavalier attitude towards law enforcement, yet it is his blue-collar and by-the-book subordinate Detective Sergeant Lewis (played by Kevin Whately) to whom he must rely to save his career and life.

Those character flaws make Morse more human and more fascinating character. That character is not only the main, but also the only relevant reason why anyone should watch Inspector Morse, at least based on the way first three episodes were scripted. All those expecting some sort of mind games or fascinating display of someone’s deductive abilities are going to be disappointed. Morse is more often wrong than not; murders are solved through mere coincidence, resulting in annoyingly predictable outbursts of violence at the very end. Some of the plots – like in Service of all the Dead – are seemingly complex enough to cause high bodycount, yet they don’t make much of a sense and the audience has to pay extra attention towards minor details to completely understand them. This could be explained by bad direction or bad screenwriting, which, like in many screen adaptations, discarded the complexity and depth of literary source.

The acting is, on the other hand, very good. Thaw and Whately are joined by diverse and talented cast. Most important are roles of women which, in a various degrees, become Morse’s romantic interests; all are played by truly remarkable actresses – Gemma Jones (Hogwarths healer Poppy Pomfrey in Harry Potter film series) in The Dead of Jericho, Barbara Flynn in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn and Angela Morant in Service of all the Dead. Some other minor roles are also quite interesting – Michael Gough as university official who shares Morse’s love of crossword puzzles and Roger Lloyd-Pack, best known for his role in sitcoms, here playing a man in rather dramatic situation.

First season of Inspector Morse, being produced almost three decades ago, also provides an interesting and, at times, fascinating glimpse in the world quite different from our own, and shows how technology immensely changed not only people’s lifestyles and attitudes, but also the way crimes are committed or solved. Morse, for example, enjoys his classical music only through vinyl records or audio-cassettes in his police car; lack of Internet or VCRs, on the other hand, forces characters to seek certain sort of entertainment in cinemas that show Last Tango in Paris. Even more significant is the lack of mobile phones, computerised databases or DNA forensics that make investigations more difficult; in one case, use of more primitive (and unreliable) methods of identification allows criminal conspiracy impossible in today’s world. Those and other details, together with Thaw’s excellent perfomances, give more than enough reasons for first season of Inspector Morse to be recommended.

REVIEW: Magic City (Season 2, 2013) September 25, 2013

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Actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan at The Losers film p...

Actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan at The Losers film panel at WonderCon 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

MAGIC CITY

SEASON 2 (2013)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2013

When Starz announced cancellation of MAGIC CITY after its second season, few people were surprised, author of this text included. Making of Season 2 was actually announced even before airing of the very first episode of the entire show. Such decisions might reflect either great confidence among the creators or cheap attempt to create extra publicity. Based on what I saw in first season, I tended to believe the latter explanation. Second season did few things to clear such impression.

First sign that Season 2 wouldn’t be an improvement is in the opening titles, which used different and less impressive music that in Season 1. After that almost any change in the show was change for the worse. This could be explained with apparent loss of creative energy by showrunner Mitch Glazer. In first season he used fascinating setting and fascinating character; in second season he didn’t know what to do with them.

Both seasons – with eight episodes – were relatively short, but the second looked much longer. The main plot – conflict between hotel owner Isaac “Ike” Evans (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his bloodthirsty gangster partner Ben “The Butcher” Diamond (played by Danny Huston) – was resolved through not very convincing deus ex machina. Entry of James Caan as Diamond’s mentor and boss only reminded audience about THE GODFATHER, a film much better than a TV show MAGIC CITY could ever aspire to be. Those two main characters didn’t have much of development in next eight episodes; Ike is still a dedicated family man trying to do the right thing despite unsavory business and social connections; Butcher Diamond is just as evil and depraved as he was in Season 1.

The most interesting character of all was Ike’s new wife Vera, which nevertheless proved to be rather thankless role for Olga Kurylenko. Her character was badly served by dancing subplot which didn’t go anywhere. Other women fared only marginally better. Jessica Marais in the role of Diamond’s femme fatale wife was provided with some space to explore her past and make her character more interesting. This opportunity was squashed in predictably violent plot development. Yet the worst happened to character of Judi Silver (played by Elena Satine) an elite prostitute turned state’s star witness, who, for some not particularly convincing reasons, decided to stay in Miami only to provide Season 2 with new batch of scenes of sex and nudity.

It would be unfair to say that the show creators didn’t try to make at least some things in second season better. Character of Ike’s nemesis – crusading state attorney Jack Klein – was made more complex by adding  genuine care about daughter (and presumably about community’s wellbeing) as further and more convincing motives than mere political ambition. Even more interesting was an idea to have Ike play mobsters against Castro in an attempt to secure business empire in post-revolutionary Cuba. Although audience, at least those viewers familiar with Cold War history, could have known that such scheme ultimately wouldn’t work, this was a subplot that had some potential; transitional periods in history are known to provide best dramas. This subplot was even more promising with character of Ike’s father (played by GODFATHER veteran Alex Rocco) being implicitly  portrayed as socialist; it would have been even more interesting to see his reactions towards business alliance between Cuban leftists and his capitalist son.  Sadly, this opportunity was lost in the cancellation.

In the end, failure of MAGIC CITY is going to be as irrelevant as the show itself. It was interesting attempt to re-create the magic of a bygone era and success of other period shows, The concept was put on the screen half-heartedly and without much inspiration. MAD MEN or BOARDWALK EMPIRE showed that period drama require something more than “cool” setting.

RATING: 4/10

TELEVISION REVIEW: Parade’s End (2012) November 22, 2012

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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PARADE’S END

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2012

British television is usually considered superior to American and most other world’s televisions. This could be explained by greater flexibility in television formats. Some of the best examples could be found in the realms of television drama. Regular television series in UK is usually made out of much shorter seasons than in USA, without need to create sub-par episodes to fill 20+ quotas. British mini-series, on the other hand, could be longer than usual 3 hours and thus allow more complex and elaborate plots and character developments. This feature is quite promising for literary adaptations and this might explain why great novels of British literature tend to be adapted in good or even great British television. Such great expectations, however, weren’t met in Parade’s End, five-part mini-series based on the eponymous series of novels written by Ford Maddox Ford.

The plot takes places in 1910s Britain, setting made quite popular due to success of Downtown Abbey. The protagonist, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is Christopher Tietjens, son a wealthy Yorkshire aristocrat who works for the government as a statistician. Despite his wealth and seemingly successful political career, Tietjens is deeply unhappy man. This is partly due to his conservative beliefs that are at odds with all-encroaching modernity and partly because of the disastrous marriage with constantly unfaithful wife Sylvia (played by Rebecca Hall). Tietjens himself becomes infatuated with Valentine Wannop (played by Adelaide Clemens), outspoken suffragette that seemingly embodies everything he is against; their mutual attraction will not end in affair because due to Tietjens’ moral convictions and due to outside events. One of such events is the global European war he had predicted based on his statistics and in which he would, like many of his generation, take active part.

Parade’s End on paper contains all the proper ingredients for successful literary adaptations. It is produced by BBC, written by renowned dramatist Tom Stoppard, and the cast features reliable set of top British actors. Among them the best is Cumberbatch, who looks ideal for the role of seemingly cold and cynical embodiment of “stiff-upper-lip” British aristocrat. His portrayal, in which he shows the warmer side of the very troubled and complex characters, would, unfortunately, be overshadowed by unavoidable comparisons with somewhat similar role in Sherlock. Casting was also well-done by pitting two very different actresses for the roles of women who fight over protagonist. Rebecca Hall is very effective as manipulative “vampish” seductress, while relatively unknown Australian actress Adelaide Clemens provides good contrast as short-haired “good girl”.

The rest of cast is, on the other hand, despite great talent, fails to make an impact mostly due to failure of Stoppard and director Susanna White to compress the content of four novels into five hours of television. There are some good scenes, especially those featuring Stephen Graham (best known as Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire) in the role of Tietjens’ socially climbing friend; almost unrecognisable Rufus Sewell is quite memorable as insane vicar. All those scenes provide humour, but not as much as the fourth episode of the series, set behind the WW1 front and in which bureaucratic and logistical problems conspire with family crisis to create nightmare almost as bad as the horrors of trench warfare. Those brilliant flashes, however, only point to the series not function as a whole. Some important historic events in the background (beginnings of women’s franchise, Irish question, rise of social activism and socialism, the slow collapse of former anti-Catholic prejudice) are given token treatment. The series quite abruptly with the end of war, leaving the audience to wonder what would happen to the protagonist in strange and new world. Failure to answer this question makes audience rather unsatisfied and quite disappointed.

RATING: 6/10

REVIEW: Magic City (Season 1, 2012) June 6, 2012

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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English: Olga Kurylenko during the new Ford Ka...

English: Olga Kurylenko during the new Ford Ka presentation in Paris – cropped version Polski: Olga Kurylenko na prezentacji nowego Forda Ka – wersja wykadrowana Français : Olga Kurylenko pendant la présentation du nouveau modèle Ford à Paris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

MAGIC CITY

SEASON 1 (2012)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2012

Thanks to expansion of cable, television series has replaced feature film as the prime form of screen drama. Cable companies, unburdened by most commercial or censorship considerations of network television, have created titles that allow much better storytelling and complex characters than those shown in theatres. Some of them reflect ambition of competing with great film sagas of the past. One of such examples is MAGIC CITY, period drama aired by Starz. Although usually compared with today’s TV shows like MAD MEN and BOARDWALK EMPIRE, its style and setting owes much more to Coppolaa’s THE GODFATHER.

The plot is set in 1959 Miami, place which is experiencing great tourism boom. Protagonist is Isaac “Ike” Evans (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), owner and founder of Miramar Playa, the most elite and glamorous of all Miami hotels. On surface, Ike’s empire looks like the perfect incarnation of American Dream; he is, however, more than aware of its fragility and dark origins, embodied in his former partner, violent Miami crime boss Ben Diamond (played by Danny Huston). Ike, as a relatively recent widower, also has to deal with family issues – new wife in form of Cuban showgirl Vera (played by Olga Kurylenko) and two grown but very different sons – reckless Stevie (played by Steven Strait) and serious and idealistic Danny (played by Christian Cooke). Evans must protect his empire by navigating through political and business intrigues in a city beset by ethnic and racial prejudice and threatened by emerging Cold War crisis from neighbouring Cuba.

Based on the first eight episodes, it could be argued that MAGIC CITY fails to reach the standards set by MAD MEN. The characters look terribly clichéd, and some of them, like ultra-violent gang boss played by over-the-top Huston, look like caricatures. Two of Evans’ boys only gradually transcend the simplicity of division between “good” and “bad” son. Plot develops in rather familiar trajectory, offering few surprises to any but the least experienced viewers. Violence, nudity and sex n MAGIC CITY looks less like an attempt to portray dark underbelly of shining and prosperous 1950s America and more like an obligatory content of today’s cable television.

Yet, despite those flaws, MAGIC CITY has plenty of charms. Morgan is very good in the role of imperfect and vulnerable protagonist who desperately tries to do the good thing. Great effort is invested in costumes, scenery and other period details; absence of “cool” and iconic soundtrack (probably caused by budget considerations) actually works very well, making the scenes more realistic and natural.  One of the best, or probably the best, part of the show is provided by the opening titles, which wouldn’t look out of place in best James Bond film. Although the season ends with obligatory and rather predictable cliffhanger, it also leaves much room for improvement.  It is less likely that the second season of MAGIC CITY could be as great disappointment as in the case of BOARDWALK EMPIRE.

RATING: 6/10

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