British Drama: A Guide (Part II: The Mystery Tier 2)

Tier 2: “So I’m at the library…Hey, sweet!”

Cracker (1993-96)

To be left at the airport, Fitz, that’s one thing. But to be left by a big, fat, egocentric, middle-aged man, well, that’s a different thing altogether. 

Dr. Eddie Fitzgerald (Robbie Coltrane) is a brilliant psychologist who sees that a student of his has been murdered.  He knows he can help DCI Billborough’s (Christopher Eccleston) investigation.  He does.  Fitz becomes very close to DS Penhaligon (Geraldine Somerville) especially when he gets in fights with his wife Judith (Barbara Flynn), which is often.

This show is about the flawed genius investigator–he smokes, he drinks, he’s got a gambling problem, and he’s too smart for his own good.  It’s very well written by Jimmy McGovern (and occasionally others) creating taut mysteries and dramatic (and surprisingly not-maudlin) story lines.  It’s also hilarious.

Region 1 ($90) Region 2 (£25)

Life on Mars (2006-07)

My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident, and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home.

Sam (John Simm) is the fellow described above in a 1973 peopled with some great characters.  Sam himself is tidy, temperamental (why is that “a” there?), and a procedure-whore that gets on the nerves of Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), the Manchester DCI that is hot-blooded, a seeker of justice, and unfamiliar with rules of any kind.  There’s also WPC Cartwright (Liz White) there to listen to Sam’s ravings.  He’s just trying to figure it out.

This show is very much unlike the others.  Each episode has the mystery du jure but a main story arch that moves around on you at every turn.  Is he in a coma, has he gone back in time, or has he lost his mind?  It’s incredibly well produced and takes the ancient British Television rule of two series and done to avoid diluting a great show.  Then they had to go and make Ashes to Ashes (2008-10), which, despite having Keeley Hawes in it, couldn’t hold my attention enough to put it on this list.

Region 1 ($60) Region 2 (£18)

Luther (2010-11)

DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) is a sort of genius intuitionist that solves crime through being totally awesome.  He let a criminal fall to his near-death and has to deal with that.  But do we follow procedure or do we get the bad guys and save who we can?  He’s unbearable during his suspension and is separated from his wife Zoe (Indira Varma) (who then dates Mark North (Paul McGann)).  Soon after he returns, he gets a case that he quickly discovers to be the work of the victims’ child Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) (who, he also quickly diagnoses with sociopathy).  They do battle of the wits and come out evens.  She begins to have a significant interest in Luther and follows him through the two series.

Paradise Circus by Massive Attack is the opening credits.  Idris Elba is the lead.  He starts up a friendship with sociopath that he knows killed her parents.  What a show.  Yeah, it does fall down a bit into the maudlin, your-gun-and-your-badge kind of dramatics, but these guys are too cool to miss.  I fear this appeals to the populist in me, but so does mystery in general.

Region 1 ($33) Region 2 (£14)

Prime Suspect (1991-2006)

DCI Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) is an ambitious detective who has to play office politics without ruth in order to get what she wants.  When we first meet her, she wrangles her way into a case when the lead detective suffers a heart attack.  She inherits a case of a serial murderer, few leads, and a hostile team to support her.

This is more police procedural than mystery, but it’s a classic of the PBS and strong enough as a drama to make me stretch a point.  This show is dedicated to the single individual with her trials and tribulations.  Luckily for the show, it was Helen Mirren.  She carries it wonderfully.  It’s also strong in the story and dialogue department.  Based on books by Lynda La Plante.

Region 1 ($78) Region 2 (£14)

Next time: Tier 3

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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