Van der Valk too Clever by Far

Van der Valk

I watched the first episode of Series Two of Van der Valk last night and came away unimpressed. I didn’t really like the first season of Van der Valk all that much either but, I said to myself, why not give it a chance?

The show follows a team of detectives in Amsterdam led by Peter Van der Valk. They are an eclectic group to say the least. The show is actually a reboot from an earlier series which I have not seen so I can’t really make any comparisons. The new show is flashy, stylish, filled with dramatic music, tense scenes, and intense characters.

My Review of Van der Valk

My review of the episode can be summed up in a single line: too clever. That’s simplifying all my problems with the show but it does express my general frustration with crime dramas and mysteries that make the solution so convoluted I have no chance of figuring anything out. Of course, I actually figured out the actual killer from the beginning but the clues that led us there were beyond baffling.

Basically, our killer left notes on the corpses with cryptic clues as to the next victim. Then one member of the team eventually had some sort of epiphany of understanding that led to the next scene. The word ethics must mean Spinoza! The word fire must mean Prometheus. The word God must mean Inventory but then, also be an acronym. Each revelation made less sense than the previous.

It seemed to me someone came up with the clever idea of having the murderer use Spinoza as an inspiration but then just went about it in the laziest way possible. I get using a local philosopher as a plot point but the story had nothing to do with Spinoza and the three great disasters of Amsterdam except in the most convoluted way possible. I lost track of it and just kept shaking my head and sighing in bewilderment.

While the effort to be overly clever certainly made my experience watching the first episode of Van der Valk unpleasant, it was not my only issue. Spoilers coming.

The Fish Tank

The fish tank in which the young woman drowned was way too high for the scene to happen. The murderer could not push the victim into the tank. The elevated tank came up to the chest of the detectives. You can’t bend over that way, it needed to be at waist height.

The First Victim in the Windfarm

Our murderer is not a large man. How he managed to get his victim up on the cross in the middle of the wind farm is beyond my understand. I’m willing to give a little leeway here. Maybe he rented a truck with a crane or something.

The Publicist and the Car

It’s revealed the publicist, who drowned implausibly as described above, was murdered because she took a bribe in order to stop her campaign to help the local artists. The bribe being a fancy car. This seemed utterly improbably to me. Amsterdam is a city well-known for an excellent public transit system. I can see her taking a large sum of money, but a sports car that she needs to pay upkeep and taxes on? Made no sense to me.

The Husband

The first victim’s husband was impossibly bizarre. The story of his separation from his wife and his violent abuse didn’t tie into the story at all. It just seemed an excuse to have a dislikable character as a possible suspect. His transparent lies made it clear he couldn’t be the murderer.

The Date

I can’t even begin to tell you everything I found wrong in the date between the detective and the ink maker. First off, it’s a stretch just to imagine she agreed to go out with him. I found his bumbling stupidity beyond credibility and Van der Valk ridiculing the poor fellow incessantly as some sort attempt at comic relief came across as completely unrealistic.

The poor fellow, I can’t even remember his name, seems to be on the show simply so people can make fun of him.

The Final Scene

Wait, the other bombs were real? When did he plant them. How does he have explosive knowledge. His reasoning for the brutal murders makes almost no sense. His final dialog with our hero went on and on. And on. And on. And on.

While they were talking, you can clearly see the Ferris wheel revolving normally in the background although supposedly it is being evacuated.

The Acting

I think the actors do their best with the lines they’ve got. It’s a mess but at least they try.

Conclusion

Blah. Too clever. Trying too hard to be dramatic. The serial killer leaving cryptic clues is tired and boring writing at this point. A good crime drama doesn’t need to save the world. It can just be a good crime drama. Van der Valk isn’t that.

Tom Liberman

Endeavour Series Eight Trying too Hard

Endeavour

I just finished watching the final episode of the eighth series of Endeavour and came away mightily disappointed. Not that the mystery was terrible or anything but it failed to meet its normally high standards.

I’m aware this relatively negative review will not be popular with fans of Endeavour and of Morse shows in general. That being said, I call them like I see them and this season failed for a number of important reasons.

The Mystery

I’ve written in other places on the criteria I use when evaluating the objective quality of a show but a mystery show is slightly different. An important factor in a mystery is giving the audience a reasonable chance to solve the riddle before the conclusion. Too often in mysteries the writers make it so convoluted and confusing the audience never has a chance to figure it out.

In the three episodes of this series, only the first gives the audience even a semblance of chance to figure out the mystery. The second episode of Endeavour involved clock hands matching semaphore signals which spell the Welsh version of an important character’s name. Um, our chances of figuring that out? Zero percent seems high. The third was such a convoluted mess they spent twenty minutes explaining who did it and why and I’m still confused.

I found the mysteries too clever by far and this largely ruined the season for me. Particular the third episode, which tried to be Silence of the Lambs meets Halloween meets A Beautiful Mind, left me baffled, bored, and incredulous.

It’s my opinion the Endeavour audience doesn’t need all this nonsense. Give us a reasonable mystery and let the wonderful characters carry the story.

All the Rest

Everything else in Endeavour is up to par. The acting is excellent. The sets are great. The costumes are period and convincing. The cinematography is solid although I thought they got a little too fancy at times trying to be stylish.

Missing Son

The third episode included a lengthy side story involving Thursday’s missing son. I strongly suspect it is a lead-in to what will be the main storyline of series nine. It also allowed Thursday’s wife to have her meltdown which I guess was dramatic acting or something.

That being said, it was way, way too much. It took away from the episode and no investigation or even explanation occurred. It was just there. This really took time away from what was already a mind-boggler of an episode. Nothing forwarded the story.

I get what they are trying to do, or at least I think I get it. My problem is a much simpler way to handle the situation existed. Just a scene where the army calls looking for the son. Something simple, don’t get into details or even have it known that he’s missing. Just a quick setup.

Conclusion

The character of Morse, both older and younger, is well-established and interesting. He and his co-workers are good enough for an interesting episode. All I need is a reasonable mystery around them and I’m happy. This series of Endeavour just tried way too hard to be far more than it needed to be.

Sanditon Lacked the Deft Touch of Jane Austen

Deft Touch

Season Two of Sanditon wrapped up with a final episode largely lacking a deft touch. The various plot lines largely smashed to the ground with all the force of turkeys dropped from a helicopter. This lack of deft touch runs counter to the general manner in which Jane Austen writes her novel and struck me greatly.

I’m certainly not saying the second season of Sanditon is a disaster. It proved largely watchable and mostly enjoyable. Still, the heavy-handed conclusion to several of the season-long story lines left me somewhat disappointed. Let’s talk about it.

Charlotte, Alexander, and Colonel Lennox

I never felt any real chemistry between Charlotte and Alexander. I found Rose Williams effective in her role of Charlotte but I couldn’t see why she fell in love with Alexander. Ben Lloyd-Hughes as Alexander never really engaged me. He seemed dull and lifeless, which, to be fair, is part of the character as written.

Likewise, Colonel Lennox didn’t strike me as the sort to win Charlotte’s heart. In addition, his portrayal as a scheming villain never resonated for me. Tom Weston-Jones just didn’t make me hate him, or like him much for that matter. He was just sort of there.

Because I never really got invested in the potential love triangle, the ending never tugged at my emotions at all.

The Kids

Honestly, I know one is Leonora but the other one I just can’t remember. Let me look it up, ah, yes, Augusta. Eloise Webb didn’t have a lot to work with and she rotated between hating and adoring Charlotte so often I lost track of it all. I just didn’t really care about either one of the children to be honest and therefore their plight didn’t mean much to me.

Tom Parker and the Money Problems

I did find the money issues involving Sanditon and Tom Parker compelling but the resolution left me completely dissatisfied. I hoped Arthur might come up with some brilliant plan. Instead, a single hand of cards in a game that wasn’t explained solved the issues. The dramatic music played during the game hoped to create tension and suspense but I felt nothing.

It’s a real problem when one of the biggest dramatic moments at the conclusion of a season is confusing and dull. The resolution here left me baffled. This is the best the writers could find?

Miss Lambe and Charles Lockhart

The ending here really turned me off. Alexander Vlahos did a superb job as the brilliant artist, dismissive of society, admiring Miss Lambe. Then, suddenly, with no explanation or foreshadowing, he’s the bad guy. Crystal Clarke as Georgiana also turned in a fine performance. First disdainful of the artist and then succumbing to his charm.

The conclusion largely betrayed everything that came before it. If we’d seen Lockhart revealing his nefarious scheme in any way before the denouement, it might have worked. We didn’t. The twist ending fell quite flat for me at least, the deft touch of Austen completely absent.

Alison, Carter, and Fraser: A Deft Touch at Last

This love story made more sense and the flavor of Austen came through. I believed the innocent and bright-eyed Alison falling for the apparently dashing Captain Carter. Frank Blake as Fraser did a great job portraying his admiration of Alison while displaying loyalty to his friend.

Rosie Graham as Alison and Maxim Ays as Carter also performed admirably in their roles. I found myself invested in this story and when Fraser emerged as the winner of Alison’s heart it made sense.

I was a little put off by Fraser resigning his commission and returning with Alison to a life of farming. A more appropriate ending, in my mind, is Alison joining Fraser in India, traveling the world as the wife of an officer destined for glory. That is a small quibble and this storyline proved more satisfying.

The Nefarious Edward

Absolute applause for Jack Fox in his role as Edward Denham. His performance made this story the most compelling in the series. This is a villain! He perfectly transitioned between scheming miscreant to charmer. I believed him, his plan made sense. He brought Edward Denham to life in a way lacking with Colonel Lennox and Charles Lockhart. A villain is vital to a story and Fox sold me completely.

Lily Sacofsky as Clara, Charlotte Spencer as Esther, and Anne Reid as Lady Denham ably supported and enhanced Fox’s performance. Each of them brought their own nuance to the plot and I believed every second of it. When Clara comes to the realization she’s better off on Team Esther it is apparent and logical. Everything comes together nicely.

Perhaps I found her final decision a bit paradoxical after her speech about the fierceness of her love for the baby, but this is minor.

Conclusion

Sanditon is a decent show and I enjoyed it. Sadly, it lacked the deft touch necessary to bring it home as excellent entertainment. What did you think?

Tom Liberman

Why isn’t Hugh the Villain in All Creatures Great and Small?

All Creatures Great and Small

The latest episode of All Creatures Great and Small featured the return of Hugh. It afforded the writers an opportunity to present a clear villain to contrast with heroic James. They didn’t do so. Perhaps they had a couple of shots where Hugh smiled at the misfortune of James but that’s as far as it went.

Today I want to examine why Hugh is portrayed in this manner and what I think about that choice. It’s an interesting concept because most shows tend to break down the world into simple choices. Good guy versus bad guy. All Creatures Great and Small chose not to go that route.

Who is Hugh?

Hugh was the romantic interest and rival for Helen’s affection from the first season of All Creatures Great and Small. The two were engaged with their marriage marking the season finale. Helen, for various reasons including her affection for James, calls off the marriage at the last moment leaving Hugh at the altar.

The Reappearance of Hugh

Hugh is absent from season two up until now, although he is mentioned several times. This episode starts with James going to Hugh’s estate to ring a young bull. Hugh seems to smile at James’s misfortune with the bull and that leads the audience to believe Hugh is going to play the villain.

It turns out Hugh had the nose ring inserted because he planned to give it bull to Helen’s family as gift in replacement for a bull purchase that fell through as part of an episode in the previous season. He also puts Helen’s name on the farm deed as part of the renewal. Here is where we see Hugh not behaving in a villainous fashion. We learn he’s actually a decent fellow.

The central plot point of the episode is the cricket match between the landed gentry of the region and the local farmers. Hugh is the star bowler for one team while James is a late entry for the local side, although he lacks much experience with the game.

The Big Match

During the match, Hugh has a heartfelt talk with Helen where he admits his own trepidation about their relationship and shows no hard feelings.

In the big match Hugh faces James with the entire game at stake. James allows Hugh to win and rationalizes later to Helen that he felt he owed Hugh a win. Hugh then shakes James’s hand and offers him congratulations for a good game.

Why is Hugh Generous?

This question is the main focus of my blog. Why not make Hugh a monster? He has every right to be angry at James over Helen. Why not have him seek revenge? He might fail to renew the lease. He could purposely hit James with the cricket ball. He can make snide and nasty remarks at James’s expense. He doesn’t, but why?

Certainly, in a lot of other shows, that’s exactly the way they’d portray Hugh. A villain for the sake of comparing him to the hero. How are we to know James is a good guy if we don’t have a bad guy for the sake of comparison?

It’s my opinion the reason Hugh is a good egg is because that’s more realistic. It trusts the audience to understand that sometimes life happens. Just because James is a fine fellow doesn’t mean his romantic rival must be evil. It makes us view Hugh as a human being, not as a caricature of one. It’s nuanced and it’s interesting.

I like it

I think it’s probably pretty easy to guess my opinion on the portrayal of Hugh in All Creatures Great and Small. I think it’s great the writers are willing to trust my judgment. They don’t need to turn the world into tropes and boring cliches.

I don’t need Hugh to be bad to understand James is good. I don’t need James and Helen to be good all the time either. If anyone is a bit petty and angry in this episode, it’s James.

Well done, well done indeed.

Tom Liberman