Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Lewis: The Former Sidekick

We Yanks seem to enjoy watching Brits knock each other off and then figure out who did it and why, particularly on Masterpiece Mystery, where the feature-length installments have time to fully develop the crimes and subsequent investigations. Still, some rather workaday mysteries became popular simply on the strength of their characters. Arguably, the Inspector Morse series, as well as the Inspector Lewis spinoffs, are prime examples. With the death of both the central character and lead actor John Thaw, Morse was presumed to have run its course, but the enduring popularity of his sidekick formerly Detective Sergeant, now Inspector Lewis has been a bit of a surprise. However, the first two episodes of the upcoming Inspector Lewis Series III are in fact better than average for standard-issue BBC crime dramas.

Sunday’s season premiere, Counter Culture Blues, is definitely distinguished by its guest stars, including a perfectly cast Joanna Lumley as Esme Ford, a sixties rock icon long presumed dead, who mysteriously reappears out of the blue. However, it is Simon Callow who really vamps it up as Vernon Oxe, the band’s refined Col. Tom Parker. The actual mystery involving the aged drug-addled rockers is hardly extraordinary, but Callow’s droll scenery-chewing is quite entertaining.

The following Sunday’s Dead of Winter is better conceived mystery with a vaguely Da Vinci Code-like angle that also involves the personal back-story of Lewis’s sidekick, the seminary-trained DS James Hathaway. It too appears to have some considerable added star power with the guest presence of Nathaniel Parker (a.k.a. Masterpiece Mystery’s Inspector Lynley), but he is essentially wasted in little more than a bystander role.

However, Winter is probably most notable for Lewis’s awkward attempts to mentor his straight-laced DS. Frankly, between the two franchises, Lewis has quite an interesting character arc, having lost not just his own mentor but his wife as well. Somewhat ill at ease assuming Morse’s curmudgeonly mantle as well as his rank, Lewis often asks “what would Morse do?” This line of inquiry usually ends at the pub.

Anchored by Kevin Whately’s winning lead, comfortably balancing pathos and cynicism, Lewis seems to be growing as a franchise. At least based on the first two episodes of Lewis Series III (as airing on PBS), the overall series that started out just okay is becoming fairly good. Series III premieres this Sunday (8/29) with Counter Culture Blues, followed by Dead of Winter (9/5), with new installments to follow throughout September.

(Lewis photos: Courtesy of © ITV for MASTERPIECE)