Saturday, August 27, 2011

Lewis Series IV: Death at the University

Inspector Lewis has a healthy disdain for intellectual prattle. As a member constabulary in Oxford, England, from time to time DI Lewis must deal with the University’s arrogant elite. His sergeant, DS Hathaway is a former divinity student who should feel at home amidst ivy covered walls, but he was a Cambridge man. In contrast to last season, the Oxford setting factors directly in the four episodes comprising season IV of Lewis, premiering next Sunday night on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery.

Detective Inspector “Robbie” Lewis was the working class sergeant under the Oxford educated Inspector Morse, long a staple of Masterpiece Mystery. In recent years, the sidekick has become the curmudgeonly lead, succeeding Morse and the late John Thaw as a warhorse of the PBS showcase stable. The fourth season, as collected for American audiences, kicks off with one of Lewis’s more intriguing cases, Old Unhappy Far Off Things (promo here).

Diana Ellerby is an Oxford feminist scholar who has attracted a number of fiercely loyal protégés over the years. Unfortunately, one of them turns up dead at her going away party. As Lewis and Hathaway investigate, it becomes clear that all was not well between Ellerby’s special alumni. Of course, her contempt and lack of cooperation do not make their job any easier. Neither do the case’s painful echoes. Several years ago, the tragic death of his wife forced Lewis to remove himself from another murder inquiry at the same college. Guest-starring Juliet Stevenson (who never really became famous on these shores despite some high profile roles) as Ellerby, Far Off portrays leftist academia in a manner that would never fly on American television.

On the other hand, Wild Justice, set in an affiliate school clearly based on the now defunct Greyfriars, would seem to present an opportunity to even the score by bashing the friars (they are not monks, Hathaway constantly explains to Lewis). A high profile participant of an academic conference is murdered in a manner inspired by a lecture on revenge and justice in Jacobean drama. Having a lot of material to work with, the killer starts to rack up quite a literary body count. Though there is a fair amount of backbiting between the friars, it is the progressive secular candidate in the college’s impending governance election that really takes a PR pounding. A decent mystery that does not overplay the exoticism of the friars, Wild also features Christopher Timothy (best known for playing beloved veterinarian James Herriot) as an ex-copper who knows too much.

Perhaps the weakest installment of season IV, The Mind has Mountains involves a pharmaceutical company testing a new anti-depressant on wildly dysfunctional Oxford students. Easily Lewis’s most Hollywood outing this year, the Geordie detective constantly grouses about drug companies giving college kids horse tranquilizers, which really does not sound like a bad idea. To be fair, he is a bit out of sorts, confused by the cold shoulder given to him by Dr. Laura Hobson, his crime scene investigator and potential romantic interest. However, it might be the season’s most visually stylish episode, helmed by director Charles Palmer (son of veteran British television star Geoffrey Palmer), whose early investigation scenes are quite cinematic.

Rebounding with the finale, Gift of Promise delivers the most intricate plot of season IV. Young gifted and talented student Zoe Suskin is going through a rough patch. The director of the foundation that granted her scholarship is murdered, followed shortly by her book publisher father. Perhaps most distressingly, her favorite Oxford tutor is in questionable condition after an arsenic poisoning attempt. Somehow though, it all seems to involve a nasty bit of IRA infighting conspicuously missing from a former MI-5 director’s memoirs.

Throughout season IV, Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox further refine their odd couple chemistry. Watching them bicker, banter, and brainstorm has become rather pleasant television comfort food. For the most part, the actual mysteries are reasonably mysterious and well written. The frequent Oxford backdrops this season only add to the series’ atmosphere and Anglophile appeal. With this season, Lewis continues to grow as a series, while holding fast to its fundamental strengths. More than solidly respectable, Lewis is definitely worth revisiting again when Far Off premieres next night (9/4) on most PBS outlets throughout the country.

(Photos: Robert Day)