Contains spoilers for the first episode
One of the problems of watching a lot of international television is that by the time some new British production shows up and is hailed as strikingly original and different, I’ve usually already watched something quite similar to it from some far-flung part of the world.
That’s especially the case for River, the new BBC-Netflix co-production written by Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady, The Hour) that started this week. Simply the presence of leading Swedish acting talent Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting, Pirates of the Caribbean, Mamma Mia, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Thor) immediately signals that this is the latest attempt by a British drama to move into the newly discovered territory of Nordic Noir and in just about every important respect the lead character Detective Inspector John River comes across as very much a super-morose version of Kurt Wallander.
Admittedly, River has good reason to be morose. He’s obsessed with a missing person’s case – almost certainly a murder, but there’s no body – where he feels he’s let the victim’s family down. Then there’s the fact he witnessed the fatal shooting of his partner Stevie (Nicola Walker) in the street just three weeks ago, but refuses post-traumatic counselling. He then ends up causing the death of a suspect in the case after a lengthy footchase through the streets of east London when the young man opts to take a header from a block of flats rather than be caught by the huffing and puffing 60-something detective who has somehow managed to keep up with him.
So, River is a haunted man. Literally: he sees ghosts. The episode opens with him chatting away happily in the car with Stevie and it’s ten minutes before the camera is allowed to pan around and show the back of her head blown out by the bullet wound that killed her. The missing girl is also hanging around his flat – it’s how we can be sure that she, too, is dead rather than just missing – and at the end the suspect who took a dive from the balcony has also moved in with River in order to protest his innocence in Stevie’s murder. As if all this isn’t enough, River makes the mistake of reading a book about the 19th century Lambeth Poisoner Thomas Cream so that he ends up having that ghost constantly haranguing him in the holding cells as well.
Since River happily chats to his ghostly chums whenever and wherever they turn up – even in the middle of the office – he’s got a bit of a reputation for being, frankly, unhinged. And the programme doesn’t actually take any definite line (in the first episode at least) about whether these apparitions are supernatural or psychological – and to be honest it works equally well either way as an examination of personal demons both real and imagined, as well as being a meditation on the effects of loss and grief.
The trouble is that none of this is hardly new ground. We’ve had The Sixth Sense of course, and the first season of American Horror Story also had a similar feel, but most of all the show feels like a revival of the long-running US television dramas Medium, Six Feet Under and Ghost Whisperer. Nordic Noir references include Forbrydelsen as well as the aforementioned Wallander. I’ve seen and watched all of these, so while everyone else in TV reviewing land was waxing lyrical about how brilliantly different and innovative River was, all I could think of was: been there, done this, seen that.
Moreover I also found it a bit of a slog. River is just so burdened by everything that’s going on around him – both real and imaginary – that I can’t say I enjoyed watching it. It was slow enough to have me annoyed about obvious police procedural flaws, wondering about the unbelievability of a sequence in which River climbs a high tree, and checking my watch to see how much longer it had to run, none of which are reassuringly good signs in a first episode.
It did have a few bits of light relief. The first and foremost of them is Walker’s brilliant performance as the deceased Stevie, diametrically different from River in just about every way. Despite being a ghost she’s ironically very much full of life, still cheerfully teasing and taunting her old partner from the afterlife. She even manages to coax him into some painfully awkward karaoke on the basis of “all Swedish people sing”, presenting ABBA as evidence in her assertion which is surely a cheeky nod to Skarsgård’s role in Mamma Mia! where he proved once and for all that he absolutely can’t.
Adeel Akhtar is also winning as River’s hangdog new partner Ira King (“a walking Gaza Strip”), able to get laughs just from the way he looks or stands but also bringing a proper dramatic concern for his clearly barking mad colleague. Lesley Manville has a thankless role as River’s immediate superior trying to keep him in the job because of his 80 per cent clean up rate (although the amount of time it takes him to solve the missing person’s case despite a honking great clue right in front of him on Facebook makes you wonder how), while Owen Teale is hardly stretched by striding around in full uniform as the officious chief superintendent who is equally determined to get River out. There are also appearances from the ever-wonderful Sorcha Cusack as Stevie’s mother Bridie and the superb Eddie Marsan (late of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) as Thomas Cream.
It’s all very well directed by Richard Laxton, who finds some unusual camera angles and also delights in making after-dark London look as attractively glittering as Las Vegas. Once the secret is out about River’s ghost watching abilities he then goes on to have a lot of fun making the spectres appear and disappear in a blink with a quick camera move, edit or the flash from a press photographer’s camera.
And yet for all it’s plusses and the positive reviews I’ve seen for River in the press this week, I simply couldn’t get excited about it. Because I tend to watch extensively outside of purely British drama productions, it felt like I’d come across all the key elements and tropes before – and to be honest I don’t have any real desire to go down any of those roads again any time soon when they were all done so well the first time.
Well, at least the latest series of Lewis is on ITV at the same time. I’ll watch that instead. It might be cosy viewing but Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox are lovely, gentle entertainment. Although I’m still miffed that Rebecca Front is no longer in it…
The eight-part series River continues at 9pm on Tuesdays on BBC One. The full series will be released on DVD on November 23 2015 in the UK. Lewis is also on Tuesdays at 9pm, on ITV, and season nine will coincidentally also be on DVD on the same date. Spooky.