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Inspector Lewis returns to Oxford (and PBS)

Inspector Lewis returns to PBS next week with a fourth season brought over from the United Kingdom’s ITV, a frequent PBS content partner, as fans of Downton Abbey may be aware. Lewis, adapted from the Inspector Morse novels and spun off from the long-running Inspector Morse television series, revolves around Inspector Lewis (Kevin Whately) and his partner, DS James Hathaway (Laurence Fox), as they investigate murders both sordid and fiendishly complex. The show has turned out to be a bit of a sleeper hit on PBS, which is currently reairing older episodes to get viewers in the mood.

Four ninety minute episodes comprise the season: ‘Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things,’ ‘Wild Justice,’ ‘The Mind Has Mountains,’ and ‘The Gift of Promise.’ For US viewers accustomed to 22-24 episode seasons of one hour episodes, Inspector Lewis is a bit of a change of pace with its languid 90 minute episodes that creep under your skin as the mystery unfolds. PBS has clearly demonstrated that there’s a market for UK television in the US, and the curators at Masterpiece have done an excellent job when it comes to finding the plums of the crop.

Set in Oxford, which has an astoundingly large population given all the people they kill off in each episode, Inspector Lewis is a continual reminder of the clashes between the ancient and the modern, where feminists and friars are equally likely to appear in a world that is undergoing radical social and cultural shifts. Lewis has difficulty adapting to this highly cerebral world at times, while Hathaway has no such reservations; Oxford is comfortable ground for him, and he banters freely with the academics they encounter in the course of their murder investigations and navigates the privileged environment with ease.

‘You’re very odd, for a policeman,’ more than one person remarks, and Hathaway is indeed rather an enigma. While the series is named for Lewis and he’s certainly an interesting character, it’s Hathaway who intrigues me much more, with his intellectual past and his reluctance to discuss his previous life. He is indeed odd, for a policeman, but a good fit for the environment of Oxford, where investigators need to be able to keep pace with their suspects, witnesses, and persons of interest. Hathaway is the character I keep finding myself wanting to see and know more of, and the show is deliciously coy about his personal life to keep viewers guessing, and intrigued.

Lewis, of course, is far from a plodding policeman, as he sharply reminds viewers now and then, and the partnership is a fascinating one to watch. Coworkers and suspects alike underestimate Lewis at their own risk. Unlike lead investigators on US shows, he doesn’t need to spend the bulk of each episode adjusting his sunglasses and being periodically struck with bolts of inspiration. He does the legwork, and his thought processes unfold naturally as he connects the dots; an investigator’s job, he reminds Hathaway, is to speculate, and he does so rather well.

This theme of uneasy marriage between ancient and modern is reflective of Masterpiece Mystery! itself, which after 40 years on the air still retains vestiges of the delightful titles originally developed by Edward Gorey. Masterpiece runs the risk of becoming stodgy and outdated for viewers, with its cozy British mysteries and nostalgic reminders of eras long gone in series like Upstairs, Downstairs. Yet, Masterpiece has not only managed to remain fresh, but highly successful—a niche market it may be, but it has established and maintained a solid reputation for interesting television that keeps viewers coming back.

On the surface, Inspector Lewis is a slow, sleepy show. Things take time to unfold in the luxury of 90 minutes and much more process and staging is visible for viewers than in many US-based crime dramas, which tend to focus on exoticised crime lab scenes interspersed with car trips and the occasional interview with witnesses, victims, or persons of interest. In Inspector Lewis, viewers get to know the guest characters, their motivations, and their stunning gardens and country homes as well as the regular starring cast, and the result is complex, rich, delicious storytelling.

Hidden and past identities are a recurring theme this season, both for the lead characters and the people they’re investigating. Multiple episodes contained complex elements of deception that unraveled and led to murder, raising larger questions about life and identity. Inspector Lewis foregrounds the clash between personal past and present alongside the collision of cultural ancient and modern, highlighting, for viewers, the impact our collective and personal pasts have on the present. It manages not to be heavyhanded with it, which can be challenging.

As a viewer in the US, one of the things about the series I found particularly intriguing, speaking of identity and the conflicts between past and present, was the ubiquity of CCTV on the series. This technology still meets with strong resistance from privacy advocates and other concerned parties in the US, although several cities have begun implementing fairly extensive surveillance networks. On Inspector Lewis it’s utterly unremarkable, and routinely showcased as a useful investigative tool.

Obviously, a drama told from the point of view of the police is going to emphasise the usefulness of the technology, but as a privacy advocate, I’m intrigued by the subtle propaganda the series offers for CCTV. Viewers are constantly shown how it can lead to breakthroughs in the case, and the first question out of the mouths of investigators processing a scene is often ‘where’s the camera footage.’ In an increasingly security and public safety-minded culture, I wonder how many viewers come away with the notion that CCTV is highly beneficial, and absorb the idea that the controversy over the technology is a load of rubbish.

It also sets up a bit of a CSI effect for viewers. People accustomed to seeing CCTV used in crimesolving will expect to encounter it in courtrooms. When it’s not available in a case, or doesn’t contribute anything useful, juries may begin to feel like the case carefully built by police with the available information isn’t good enough, because it lacks the bells and whistles they expect from years of television viewing. This can have very serious implications for complex cases where evidence doesn’t fall into the laps of investigators as readily as it does on prime time.

Ultimately, viewers could discount Inspector Lewis as a cozy crime drama in grand Masterpiece tradition, but that would be inadvisable. It’s a dynamic, intellectual, engaging show where much of the drama runs below the surface, for those who are willing to slow their pace to match that of the series. Fans of Lewis and Hathaway alike should find much to enjoy this season, while viewers new to the series should still feel right at home.

3 thoughts on “Inspector Lewis returns to Oxford (and PBS)

  1. I, too, am intrigued by the character of Hathaway and I absolutely love the series, so much so that I have the two sets of DVDs. And that’s when one realizes that the PBS versions are not 90 minutes long at all, a pet peeve of mine in a world in which there aren’t supposed to be ads or “commercials.” Though I haven’t actually timed them they are more like 80 minutes. Very annoying.

    1. That’s so when they’re eventually sold to commercial television they have time for commercials. You see in the UK they have NO WHERE NEAR the amount of those bothersome, annoying, irritating TV commercials which are in every minute crevice of American life. The Brits actually pay a tax which I would GLADLY pay here if it would ensure the reduction of 90% of commercials in our television viewing. That missing 10 minutes is the amount of time the needed for commercial interruption during their air time. If American ad agencies were told that’s all they could have every 90 minutes I think most would collapse with a cerebral infarction. They’d be having seizures left and right.

  2. Will someone PLEASE tell me WHAT is that hideous coat thing Hathaway has been wearing the last couple of season? Why does it look like he needs to turn his collar down all the time?

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