Friday, July 09, 2021

Professor T (The British One), on PBS

Jasper Tempest is like the Prof. Kingsfield of criminology, but with a conspicuous case of OCD. He is the professor his Cambridge students hope they don’t get, but one of his former students masochistically recruits his services as an outside police consultant anyway. What Tempest lacks in social grace he (maybe) makes up for in intuition and deductive reasoning during the course Professor T, the British remake of the popular Belgian series, which premieres this Sunday on PBS.

The initial case in “Anatomy of a Memory” is personal for DS Lisa Donckers. The rape of a student at her old college bears many similarities to the attack on a friend during their undergrad years. If it is the same assailant, Donckers might finally grant her a small measure of justice, but the latest victim has completely blocked out all memories of the attack. Methodical Prof. T could help her remember telling details, but he is difficult to work with and she is not sure she wants to revisit the trauma.

Donckers is not the only member of the team who has history with Tempest. Oddly enough, DCI Christina Brand was once romantically involved with him, but it did not work out, for obvious reasons. For extra romantic tension, Donckers’ partner Dan Winters makes it clear he would like to develop their occasional hook-ups into a serious relationship. Meanwhile, the grieving DI Paul Rabbit is barely holding it together—and Tempest’s tactlessness is not helping.

Whereas “Anatomy” is more about method than mystery, “A Fish Called Walter” starts out like a traditional British mystery, in which a party guest is accidentally poisoned with laced champagne presumably meant for someone else. Like many of the cases Tempest and company investigate, it takes a rather dark turn when suspicion falls on the father of an ailing young girl desperately in need of a transplant. Writers Matt Baker & Malin-Sarah Gozin frequently depict the sadness and desperation of the human condition. In “Fish,” they also capture the arrogance and corruption of government bureaucrats.

Perhaps the best episode is “Tiger Tiger,” a tricky hostage crisis thriller. The twists are decent (if not absolutely flabbergasting), but series director Dries Vos definitely ratchets up the tension. Of course, who better to negotiate with the captors than a charmer like Professor T?

“Mother Love” is also a kidnapping case, but the circumstances are significantly different. Themes of motherhood abound, as the team works to reunite an abducted young girl with her parents, while Tempest does his best to continue ignoring his issues with his controlling mother, Adelaide.

“Sophie Knows” probably holds the distinction of being the saddest episode of
Professor T, which is saying something. The titular Sophie has Down Syndrome and mild autism, which leads to a strange affinity with Tempest. She might have witnessed her mother’s murder, but she is not ready to talk yet.

Professor T ends with probably its second-best episode, The Dutiful Child. A Gates-Buffet-like philanthropist is rather cavalierly disregarding death threats and an attempt on his life. The team is annoyed by his attitude and they soon start to suspect his attempts to throw suspicion on critics of his stem-cell research. Things also get dark, as usual, despite Tempest’s regular flights of fantasy and surreal day dreams.

Frankly, a little bit of Tempest’s subconscious, visualized for our entertainment, goes a long way. Nevertheless, Ben Miller really is terrific as Prof. T. He nicely hints at the storm roiling beneath his icy fa├žade and develops some surprisingly bittersweet chemistry with Juliet Aubrey’s DCI Brand. Emma Naomi and Barney White also play off each other well, as Donckers and Winters. Plus, Andy Gathergood is an excellent stand-out as DI Rabbit. Frances de la Tour and Sarah Woodward are unceasingly irritating as Tempest’s mother and assistant, but they are supposed to be, since they are mostly seen from his stilted perspective.

The mysteries in
Professor T are okay, but it has a lot of solid psychological gamesmanship to offer. Helming all six episodes, Vos gives it a consistent look and vibe, capitalizing on the Cambridge backdrop. It won’t replace anyone’s favorite detective show, but it is entertaining, in a neurotic way. Easily recommended for fans of British mysteries, Professor T starts this Sunday (7/11) on PBS.