Do we need another TV cop show? When it’s as brilliant as the BBC’s 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.
Quickly diagnosed with PTSD and hallucinations, ordinarily River would be sidelined on medical grounds, but with his extraordinary 80% clean-up rate, and in spite of grumpy Deputy Assistant Commissioner (Owen Teale), River’s 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 – Jackie Stevenson, a chipper Nichola Walker (Spooks) and by Adeel Akhtar as new partner Ira, 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 flirty police psychologist Rosa.
In one of those sessions, Skarsgaard 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 high.
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 Tina Charles’ I Love to Love as end-credit and incidental music.
Meanwhile, among the ‘manifests’ there’s a teenage girl, his partner, and the suspect who fell to his death; and with one more bizarre twist, the manifest of Cream, the Lambeth Poisoner – a sinister cameo by Eddie Marsan (World’s End, Strange and Norrell) 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; while River clears the only 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