11 January 2016

TV Review: Endeavour - Arcadia

Against some very stiff competition, Arcadia could be the best episode of Endeavour yet. It really does have everything: an intriguing mystery, excellent character work and a gripping plot.

The opening of every episode, as we see the strands we will be following over the next 90 minutes, is always a highlight as the audience wonder how these seemingly totally disconnected worlds are somehow interlinked - usually by a murder. This week we are presented with an artist, a wonderfully retro supermarket, students throwing a Rhodesian man into the river and a countryside retreat. How these are all connected is an extremely satisfying revelation.

Russell Lewis' writing is a source of constant amazement. For a start, his titles are always perfect - here is 'Arcadia' the self-sustaining community in the country, Morse settling back into his job or Jakes finding happiness in his future wife and child? My guess is all three - and more. Then there's the presentation of contemporary issues. In this episode, men hold all the authority positions - the leader of the commune, the owner of the supermarket franchise and its manager amongst others - but all the prominence is given to the women in each of their lives, without the audience even realising. The punchline to this strand of the episode is that it's the actions of the men that have driven the women to commit the crimes depicted here.

The real merit of the script is in its subtlety though. None of this is overt and all makes complete logical sense. The episode works because it is populated by real characters who all have an ends they are working towards, rather than just being plot functions. It's interesting to examine further how Morse and Thursday are readjusting to life in the force, each with their own differences. Thursday, for example, is more inclined to speak his mind now, and Morse is likewise more direct. It's nice that the pair are also shown to be infallible, as Morse's theory is disassembled in front of the whole team.

On the flip side to that is new WPC Shirley Trewlove, whose name sounds like it was picked from a list of rejects from The Avengers or the '60s Bond movies. Played wonderfully by Dakota Blue Richards, star of The Golden Compass, she is a very welcome addition to a show fronted by the talents of Shaun Evans, Roger Allam and Anton Lesser. Trewlove reinvigorates Morse to the point where his readjustment to the force could be laid almost solely at her door. She quickly proves a very useful addition to the team as well, with extensive general knowledge and great initiative. It's a credit to her that Bright is immediately kindly towards her, not demeaning as he may have been as late as the last series. Neverland  really did change everyone. Except Strange of course.

The rule of continuing drama series often seems to be one in, one out and that could be applied here. After ten episodes, DS Jakes is off to Wyoming with a fiancée he's been seeing on the quiet. It's a really touching ending for a character who was initially one we weren't supposed to like, with his disregard for Morse and his techniques. Over the last three episodes, we have learned an awful lot about him though, and this feels like a fitting end. There is one moment, not long after we learn of his imminent departure, where Lewis and director Bryn Higgins are particularly cruel as we're left wondering whether Jakes has survived an explosion. They had me fooled at least.

I can think of nothing bad to report about this episode. It is exactly my flavour of mystery drama and puts the BBC - traditionally producers of excellent original programming - to great shame when this is held up against their current effort in the murder mystery genre, Death in Paradise. That programme pales in comparison to this in every department, and I say that without any bias. The direction and cinematography (courtesy of Cucumber's excellent Jake Polonsky) are top notch, the calibre of the acting matches that of the script - though more Monica, Win and Joan would still be lovely - and the episode itself is so carefully and skilfully constructed it staggers me. Plus I actually managed to work some of it out (the who and a few of the relationships that are so intrinsic to the story, for example).

There are two types of writers that inspire viewers to have a go: those that they think they can do better than, and those that they aspire to be as good as. Lewis is definitely in the latter category and has long since joined the shortlist of television greats in my mind, with other names including Russell T Davies, Sally Wainwright, Howard Brenton and Tony Jordan among others.

Have I just seen my favourite piece of television 2016 has to offer? Quite probably.

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