Masterpiece Mystery: Inspector Lewis

Masterpiece Mystery: Inspector Lewis

Inspector Lewis, which premiered its new series/season tonight on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, has elements that are not particularly well-written, but it's a fun mystery, anyway. It is not first-rate television. It will not explode any viewer’s understanding of the mystery genre, nor is it written with such sparkling wit that people will quote it in any days to come. What it is, however, is a pretty-good example of second-rate television. It is not a procedural about the lives of working cops but a murder mystery in which cops slowly uncover evidence, bit by bit, until they get their man. Or woman, as the case may be. There are no cheesy catchphrases, Who songs, extreme close-ups of CGI guts, pregnant pauses to build sexual tension among coworkers, celebrities underplaying their role so we won’t suspect them early on (although we totally do), or any of that ratings-bait garbage. There is only the job, which one character likens to a puzzle without a box cover to follow.

Kevin Whately has been playing Inspector Robbie Lewis for 24 years now, and he inhabits the role with a quite believable world-weary grumpiness. As sleuths go, he isn’t a flashy elementary-my-dear-Watson type, but a nuts-and-bolts guy who sometimes follows his gut into unlikely places. In this episode, “Old, Unhappy, Far Off Things,” a woman is killed at the last all-women’s college in Oxford, which sports the somewhat delightful name of Lady Matilda’s. Inspector Lewis immediately believes that this murder is connected with the severe beating of a girl in the same place a decade earlier. While the show tries to play coy with the idea that perhaps Lewis is following a hunch down a rabbit hole, there is never any real doubt that these two cases are connected. The fun of the show comes with the accumulation of evidence.

However, the writing is less than fun when it comes to the female characters. The murdered woman is one Poppy Toynton, assistant (or so it seems) to Professor Diana Ellerby, who is preparing to leave Lady Matilda’s for a new gig at Princeton. Poppy is found dead after a party for Ellerby, in which several of her other protegees have arrived. There is Freya Carlisle, a newspaper columnist with an imperious attitude and an acid tongue. As written, this lady would hack a child’s phone without a second thought. There is also Lakshmi Eyre (ugh to the obvious reference there), a lingerie company CEO who is slightly, but only just, less of an toxic personality than Carlisle. These ladies are in their early 30s, but they have the social skills of bitchy 17-year-old prom queens in a broad '80s comedy. When Lewis and his junior partner question these ladies about the murder, each insults the intelligence of the policeman who is speaking to her in that very minute with no compunction or concern. Is this a normal thing in England? It seems awfully broad to these American ears.

The injured girl from a decade prior is Chloe Brooks, played by a woman-child with the fragility of a young Sissy Spacek. At the beginning of our mystery, Brooks is still in a coma, although visited every day by her guilty sister Ruth. Ruth, as it turns out, was another of Ellerby’s protegees back in the day, but she left school after her 15-year-old sister was, y’know, beaten into a vegetable state while ostensibly on her watch. That can take a lot out of one’s quasi-Sapphic educational experience. Oh, I didn’t mention that yet. So, Professor Ellerby lives in an enormous mansion that she calls House Beautiful, a reference to Pilgrim’s Progress that annoys Lewis as much as it annoys me. Apparently, Ellerby invites her favorite students to come live with her every year. In American English, the term for this is “ethical violation,” but Oxford has different standards. Poppy moved in and never left. Lewis and his partner, Hathaway, suspect some illicit professor-on-girl action, but they are informed that Ellerby is asexual, and famously so. However, when Carlisle and Eyre decide to return to House Beautiful to wait out the ongoing investigation, they get very drunk, talk about their sexual exploits with one particular boy, and make the kind of eyes at each other rarely seen outside of movies with titles like Ladies Spanking Ladies VI and Horny Girls Who Live With Their Asexual Professor VIII.

For all the porn eyes and Heathers-style cattiness, there’s no sex here, because this show is closer to Agatha Christie than The Wire. There are, however, a number of literary references that do not seem to signify much. Besides Pilgrim’s Progress and Jane Eyre, the title is taken from a Wordsworth poem. Despite, or perhaps because of, these literary references, the show itself is doggedly middlebrow. Lewis is well-written. Hathaway, too. The gaggle of snooty ladies, not so much. It strains coincidence to have the girl awaken from a 10-year coma only days after someone was found murdered in the same place as her attack. The idea that Professor Ellerby and her coterie of Heathers represent academic feminism is rather insulting to both academics and feminists. The final scene belongs in a particularly Velveeta-covered episode of Murder, She Wrote.

However, for those who enjoy mysteries, these flaws will not sink their enjoyment of this installment of Inspector Lewis. Evidence is beautiful, and the ability to dole it out carefully without tipping one’s hand to the conclusion is quite a skill. This episode does just that, while also giving viewers just enough idea of the inner lives of Lewis and Hathaway to keep us interested.

Stray Observations:

  • While PBS calls this series four, Wikipedia claims that it is the first episode of series five. I don’t really care that much about the discrepancy, but it does make searching for information tricky.
  • There are three more episodes in this series, whatever its actual number may be. Don’t confuse them with the older episodes that PBS is playing in the coming weeks.
  • I'm not actually clear on why the second girl, the student, was killed.  I mean, I can guess, but the episode never actually addresses the motive there. Perhaps there had just been too much time without blood.
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