A Crime Against A Genre

Posted in TV
By Mansoor Iqbal on 12 Jan 2011

We all liked Sherlock, right? In my opinion, the reason we all ended up so head-over-heels for it, aside from Mr Cumberbatch’s comely visage, was that it saw a reversion to a more classically European detective format (I say European, but Columbo, the best of them all, is as Yank as they come). At the centre of this format is the cult of the individual – an eccentric with a dangerous intellect that is employed in an altruistic fashion. More often than not, the programme will carry the lead character’s name.

Mysteries are solved by cunning, a smattering of luck that follows on from judgement, and the occasional segment of carnivalesque action. There’s no place here for the dry procedural phallic substitution of modern US detective dramas. These are too clean, and too efficient. Most of us aren’t detectives, but shit, there’s something we can (forgive the cod psychiatric jargon) relate to in a flawed individual prone to occasional flashes of genius. In fact, admit it, that’s how you see yourself, isn’t it? There is much more appeal in innate talent than there is hard work, as some French guy said in some book (or something to that effect).

As ever, if something goes down well, no TV power monger can afford to rest on their laurels. We must have more! The people must be placated with the familiar aromas of baking bread. And so we see another unconventional detective picked out from the Amazon Kindle™ library, Inspector Zen, whose back catalogue is now gracing the walls of the London Underground.

So what makes the inspector unique? Well, he is too honest (we’re told, not shown), some things happened to him in the past – so dark, so mysterious – and he’s Italian. The last point is proved by the fact that the first thing we see him doing is drinking a tiny coffee. That is what Italians do, right? They love those tiny coffees, go absolute aggettivo for them. And he lives with his mum. Oh, and one other thing really makes him stand out: this charmless bore is bloody incompetent – not in a comedy way, it’s just that he doesn’t really seem to be very good. He solves his case by blundering around until it solves itself right in his face.

Detective stories are quite complex by nature, as anything that hinges on a mystery must be. The joy is in the criminal trying to cover their tracks, and the detectives using their intelligence, making educated but inspired guesses and weighing up the evidence. The problem here is that case itself is neither troubling, nor interesting. And its conclusion is so heavily dictated by chance (read: deus ex machina) that there’s really no chance for something interesting to unfold. One suspects the author (Michael Dibden) and screenwriters lack the intelligence or creativity to create either a good mystery or detective – not the easiest thing in the world to do, as the calibre of the greats of the genre and the plenitude of failed attempts attests to.

There all sorts of attempts to add extra drama. The main one is some guy from The Day is after him. And some shady government official has told him to make sure the case ends a certain way (it does, problem solved – this is actually the point from which the story starts, but it’s still an arbitrary addition), or – watch out Zen! – his career will be at risk. There’s nothing more exciting than a man after a promotion. And also he’s having some sort of sexy (about as sexy as Eric Pickles eating something called a Megaburger would be) relationship with a girl from work who is attracted to really boring (is it actor Rufus Sewell’s fault or the script, I can’t tell) men without any sort of discernable characteristics. Did a 15 year old write this? Adding more random plots is not the way to make something more exciting. You’re not decorating a Christmas tree, and even if you were the way is to start with a good tree.

Next time you’re looking for a good detective story Beeb, please actually read one first. And if it was an action thing you were after…don’t bother, because it always looks really cheap and tacky when you do it. They even managed to make some lovely parts of Italy look really boring. The whole thing is a special exercise in how not to do a genre piece. Please try harder.

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