Culture, TV

Review: River (BBC TV)

Do we need another TV cop show? When it’s as brilliant as River, with it’s London-based Scandi-noir feel and a stunning central performance from Stellan Skarsgaard as the grieving, ghost-whispering detective, the answer is definitely yes.

From the outset, River is the Sixth Sense detective, with Skarsgaard’s (Thor, Pirates) John River speaking with the dead – but not ghosts, he doesn’t believe in them – ‘manifests’. As the police psychologist quickly diagnoses, River has PTSD and hallucinations; not just of his dead partner, whom he saw murdered on the street, but of other victims.

Ordinarily River would be sidelined on medical grounds, but with his extraordinary 80% clean-up rate, and despite the grumpy Deputy Assistant Commissioner (Owen Teale), boss Lesley Mannville keeps him on the case. We didn’t say this was realistic, just very very good TV.


River’s deep depression is leavened by the ghost – sorry, ‘manifest’ – of dead partner Stevie, a chipper Nichola Walker (Spooks) and by Adeel Akhtar as ‘baby-sitter’ partner Ira King, a short Muslim-Jewish cop (“the original Gaza strip”), bemused and non-plussed by the shambling, disturbed River.

Episode one has the unfit and overweight River somehow chasing a suspect to his death, breaking protocol, talking to himself and evidently incapable of saying anything appropriate in a press conference. Bizarrely River avoids suspension, even after twice walking out of his mandatory psych-evaluation with the police psychologist.

In one of those sessions, Skarasgaard delivers a tour-de force speech about life death and justice, care of screenwriter-du-jour Abi Morgan (The Hour, Suffragette). You can forgive a less-than believable set up when the quality of writing and performance is this hgh.

Nicola Walker as dead partner Stevie is the tragi-comic foil to River’s grieving sleuth, Ira is the comedy sidekick and even Skarsgaard himself turns some sharp one-liners in the show’s gallows humour. Not to mention the worst karaoke in tribute to Stevie herself. You will begin to love The Nolans’ I’m in the Mood for Dancing as end-credit and incidental music.

Meanwhile, among the ‘manifests’ there’s a teenage girl, the suspect who fell to his death; and with one more bizarre twist, the manifest of the Lambeth Poisoner – a sinister cameo by Eddie Marsan (World’s End, Warhorse) as a self-righteous Victorian serial killer.

In episode one, River clears up a previous case of a murdered teenager through brilliance and empathy. In episode two, hints of his own and Stevie’s dark pasts begin to emerge; and River clears the one suspect of her murder.

Much more subtle and layered than this thin review can give credit, this is a compelling drama reliant on a compelling central performance from Skargaard. Expect award nominations aplenty. RC

Related: The Shadow Line (BBC TV)

About Robin Catling

Writer; performer; project manager; sports coach; all-round eccentric.

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