Lewis has become the posh, up-market brother to the solidly middle-class Midsommer Murders on the ITV network. They each have trademark plots and methods of murder – on Lewis you’ll get hit over the head by a bust of Einstein, whereas on Midsommer it’ll be something outrageously silly like having bottles of claret catapulted at you, or impaled on the starting winch of an antique motor car. You couldn’t mistake the scripts from one with those of the other, but both have long since left any pretence of real life and reality far behind.
Lewis’ parent series Inspector Morse might have been set in the same Oxford elite environs, but it always felt “real”: partly because it was shot on real, grainy film stock and not super-smooth, burnished golden-glow video like Lewis; and also because the show loved to take the smug, snobbish Morse and land him in situations where he had to rub his nose up against the real world, with murders involving real people or on the local council estate in order to provide contrast to the more fanciful tales of murder on campus involving millionaires, artists or opera stars. But Lewis no longer feels the need to do this, partly because the title character himself is a working class copper and so every case in an elite college is already deemed to have that “oil and water” friction. Further brushes with reality can be dispensed with, the makers seem to think.
Hence each of this series’ four stories are set within closed-off, unreal groups: there’s a murder in a religious college staffed by friars; another set in a college hosting a drugs trial; another set in the last all-female college, and within that in a particular elite group of star graduates; and then another preoccupied with gifted children. Where real people do wander into the tales (there are a couple of them in the drug trial) they’re quickly ushered out of the plot with all due haste lest they spoil the chocolate box view of England that the show’s makers are conjuring up for overseas sales. At the end of one episode there is a staggeringly fake CGI sunset used, just to ramp up this “perfect countryside” message just in case the preceding 100 minutes haven’t quite sold it enough.
All of this would be fine, if we cared about the individual cases so that the unmasking of the killer was a fulfilling moment. What amazed me was that for most of this series, I didn’t bother working out who it was … and I didn’t care when it was revealed, either. Most of the time it was obvious by osmosis by the end anyway (including one solution totally given away by casting: a star name with nothing to do for the first 90 minutes of an episode is invariably going to have to be the killer, or else why have them?) The lack of urgency or interest in unravelling the case seems to extend to the characters as well: in the middle of a multiple-fatality case, Lewis trudges up to the crime scene with his shoulders sagging, as if for all the world it was no more pressing a matter than giving a talk to the local Neighbourhood Watch. Each case – no mater the victim tally or the high profile nature – seems to be just the two main characters working in isolation with little help, and the number of times witnesses suddenly turn round in the middle of an interview and announce “I have to go” – and be allowed to walk off – is stunning. If this truly is the pace and vitality of the British police, it’s amazing that anyone even gets served a speeding ticket.
But the show has two particular strong points going for it: Kevin Whately as Lewis, and in particular Lawrence Fox as his assistant James Hathaway. It’s for these two actors, and the relationship between the characters, that we watch and most enjoy the show, and ironically as other elements of the show seem to be faltering or in deep sleep, this interpersonnel dynamic has never been better – and nor have the actors. Whately has some good moments as he reveals the reasons for his antipathy to psychiatrists; his nearly-romance with pathologist Dr Hobson is still rather sweet, while meeting a former officer who was his sergeant before Hathaway is unexpectedly interesting. Hathaway of course gets more of the eye-catching character moments, and Fox plays them for all their worth and effortlessly steals the show at times, whether he gets food poisoning or is revealed to have once been something of a “gifted child” himself in years gone past, which have clearly left some deep wounds.
The best episode this season in terms of the Lewis/Hathaway dynamic was surely “Wild Justice”. Not only do they seem particularly comfortable working together by this point (sharing a running joke about the difference between monks and friars: “No, go on sir, after you” says Hathaway about who gets to deliver the punchline this time around) but they each have bigger concerns distracting them: Lewis wondering whether to take early retirement, Hathaway considering voluntary redundancy to pursue an academic or even religious vocation. In the end, Lewis misreads his junior’s motivations, thinking that Hathaway would stay only if Lewis retired and the inspector’s position became available. Rather sweetly – and unusually for a show that usually plays everything as unspoken sub-text – Hathaway patiently explains that its the reverse, and he’ll only stay if Lewis does.
It’s a genuinely effective and affecting moment between the two. Unfortunately it’s also the one where the ending is rather undermined by that God-awful CGI sunset behind them as they share another pint.