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

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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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 (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 poorly 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.




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