“Van der Valk”– Going Dutch

Van der Valk PBS series

This quirky three-episode police procedural on Masterpiece Theater follows a  sullen, street-smart Dutch detective, Piet Van der Valk (Marc Warner), who  navigates the seedier side of lively Amsterdam.   Each two-hour episode of Van der Valk involves a  distinct crime that can be watched on its own. 


Solving convoluted crimes using astute human observation and inspired detection, Van der Valk is successful, in part, due to the support of  Inspector Lucienne Hassell (Maimie McCoy) and rookie Officer Job Cloovers (Elliot Barnes Worrell).  Cloovers is a brilliant,  nerdy intern who is barely tolerated by the sometimes overbearing Van der Valk. 

Since Van Der Valk investigates with little regard for police ethics or policies, his exasperated boss, Chief Inspector Dahlman (Emma Fielding), is often on the verge of firing him. His partner, Lucienne,  as second-in-command, tolerates his antics and supports him, and suspects he is  possibly deeply damaged, sometimes revealing touching moments. 

The first episode, “Love in Amsterdam”, deals with a political campaign pitting an alt-right wing politician against a progressive, popular candidate for mayor.  With two murders involving his campaign workers and a surprise romantic connection, the progressive candidate’s pending scandal may cause the end of his career.  

In the second episode, “Only in Amsterdam,” a Muslim worker at an addiction clinic is found dead. Evidence
 from a religious book of erotic rituals connects her murder to a Catholic nun and two academics who specialize in this arcane religious cult. 

In episode three, “Death in Amsterdam”,  a fashion vlogger with a number of enemies is found dead.  Cloovers takes a particular interest in the case since he follows that vlogger’s posts.  In this finale, we see why 

Inspector  Van Der Valk is irritating and unlikable, a guarded cipher no more. His proclivity towards wrong-headed   romantic hook-ups also gets some closure, although maybe a bit later than the mini-series warrants. 

Having Van der Valk’s second lieutenant, Lucienne, be a lesbian police officer, not his romantic interest (as in the majority of male-female detective teams on screen and in mysteries) makes for a more original and idiosyncratic relationship between the two.  And in spite of–perhaps because — they see each other’s flaws,  the two detectives feel even more respect and affection for each other.

The red herrings are often subtle with clues that do not reveal the perpetrator, taking the reviewer on a tangent to another purported murderer.  While Van der Walk has wonderful twisted plots, sometimes it is difficult  to follow the path of clues, with many characters’  names to remember and clues stacked more heavily in the second half of each episode than the first.  As a consequence of clue-stacking during the last half-hour, the middle of each episode sometimes sags as the pacing slows.

An entertaining, challenging set of mysteries to solve,   the second and third episodes of Van der Valk are more cleverly constructed than the first.

Availability:  On pbs.org

“Unforgotten”–The Power to Recall

 

Unforgotten PBS series

This British crime drama (PBS Masterpiece Mystery), comprised of three episodes in two seasons, focuses on one stone-cold case per season. Each involves a murder at least three decades old. The detective team– Cassie Stuart (the wonderful Nicola Walker of “Last Tango in Halifax” and Sunny Khan (the perfectly cast Sanjeev Bhaskar of “Indian Summers”)–solve each cold case in a delicate balancing of tension with hints of romance.

In Season 1 of Unforgotten the detectives discover the 1976 remains of a teenage boy found in the sub-basement of an apartment complex. No one but the two detectives seems to care or expect closure to the case, presuming any persons of interest would be untraceable or dead.

Unforgotten, like all good mysteries, creates encrusted layers of complex clues, red herrings, and surprises. There is no last-minute perpetrator inserted to fool the viewer. Nor is the culprit easy to guess in the first few minutes of watching. Characters are inserted in such a way that the viewer wonders where the interrelated scenes are going– a priest who helps the homeless, an older man losing patience with his wife’s descent into dementia, a woman tutoring students for their exams, and a man who obsesses over political power. There’s no indication that any of them know each other — or, really, could possibly know each other.

Season 2 of Unforgotten takes the drama up a notch. The detective team investigates another cold case– of a middle-aged man stuffed into a suitcase. His past is sordid. As the two detectives investigate the texts of possible suspects left on the pager of the deceased, secrets and lies are revealed for each of the persons of interest. But, all of them have rock-solid alibis. Questions of what constitutes justice are provocative. The two detectives eventually solve the mystery.

What distinguishes a mystery about a cold case is the stories of older people who have tremendous arcs revealing a complex series of rebirths: their pasts so complicated that who they are in the present is virtually unrecognizable. All middle-aged and old people were once young, with challenges and sex lives they may wish to forget but are not forgotten. In Unforgotten the history of each character– of their secrets and regrets– is the core narrative.  Like all good stories, the characters’ arcs reveal who we were, who we have become, and who we could be. Unforgotten is a stunning melodrama!

Note: The two-season series has now ended, but can be seen on PBS.com. Season 3 of Unforgotten is now in production.

 

“The Escape Artist”–Thrilling Escapism

 

Escape Artist 2In this two-part mini-series aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery Theater over the past two weeks, Will Burton (David Tennant of “Broadchurch”, “Dr. Who”, and “Harry Potter” fame) is  London’s top-ranked criminal defense barrister.   Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo, 2014 Tony-award winner for “A Raisin in the Sun”), is equally brilliant but number two in trial victories.  Both Will Burton and Maggie Gardner are at the top of their game,  two intellects who are perfectly matched and relentlessly ambitious.

 

Burton believes “everyone deserves a defense,”  even for the despicable murderous psychopath, Liam Foyle (fearsomely played by Toby Kebbell). After Foyle’s acquittal,  Burton soon regrets his victory.  Winning at all costs becomes tragedy.

Foyle too, is more than the cliché image of ignominious evil.  He is a creepy bird lover who is handsome and deceptively charming to the vulnerable and lonely.  The triple cat-and-mouse games (between the two lawyers, between Burton and Foyle, and between Gardner and Foyle) are riveting and suspenseful but some of the sequence of events revealed at the end are not carefully connected and leave unanswered questions.  Nonetheless, “The Escape Artist”  succeeds, despite the occasional lapses in logic, to mesmerize and terrorize.

“The Escape Artist” is a thriller in which the viewer is drawn to the story and wishes to escape it simultaneously!  Brilliant performances and enough twists and turns to hold this viewer’s attention!

[NOT available online at the PBS website but only on Netflix.]