This review contains spoilers.
As a TV detective, you’re no-one in today’s world if you’re not a) haunted by your past, b) suffering from some form of psychological disorder, or c) Scandinavian. Enter Stellan Skarsgård’s John River, pulling an impressive triple whammy in Abi Morgan’s engrossing new BBC crime series.
While his peers are only figuratively haunted by dead partners and unsolved cases, Det. River literally sees dead people. They’re not quite ghosts—he doesn’t believe in ghosts—but rather Six Feet Under-style ‘manifests’ only visible to him. (Trauma-induced hallucinations is probably the technical term, but when was the last time you booked into a Lucky Voice booth with your trauma-induced hallucination and belted out a disco classic?)
River’s manifests are both pals and pests: former partner Det. “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker being brilliantly watchable) falls into the first category, while nineteenth century Thomas “The Lambeth Poisoner” Cream (Eddie Marsan) and the small-time dealer River chased emphysemically to his death in episode one, fall into the second.
That’s River’s twist on the crime genre, and it’s a good one. First off, it allows for surprises like the gory revelation that bubbly Stevie, seen larking around in the episode’s opening scenes, had a hole the size of a fist shot into her skull by an unknown assailant three weeks ago. Not that it’s impeded her cheerily munching on junk food and singing along to Heart FM in River’s head.
Which is the second thing that River’s dead visitors do: humanise him. They’re not here as hokey contrivances to help him solve cases—as projections of his imagination, how could they be?—but to add more voices to his story. Without Stevie’s jokey intimacy, or young, dead Erin’s familiarity, or even Thomas Cream’s psychopathic goading, River might come across as just another emotionally repressed TV detective. He doesn’t. At all. This is full-fat crime drama with none of the good stuff taken out. Sincerity and pathos are right there alongside mystery and intrigue.
So far, it’s more successful in the former than the latter, even. The overarching mystery of who killed Stevie and what was presumably a case-of-the-week in Erin’s story are diverting enough, but River’s best, truest moments were its depiction of grief. Seeing River contemplate the hollow left in Stevie’s pillow, the cereal that outlived her hardening in the bottom of the bowl—afterwards briskly erased by her mother attempting to steamroller her own loss with activity—showed how much he was suffering without the need for a single word.
The talking dead might be a staple of US supernatural shows (Tru Calling, Medium, Ghost Whisperer, Pushing Daisies…) but it’s novel to see a psychological take on it inside an otherwise straight BBC crime drama. Introducing the idea that anyone River is talking to one-on-one can be revealed to be a figment also prompts the audience to sit up straighter and pay closer attention.
We’d be doing that anyway, of course, thanks to Stellan Skarsgård (who like a fairy-tale king, is the progenitor of a real-life Skarsgård dynasty: one daughter and seven towering, mostly-actor sons). The Swedish import brings so much gravitas to the role that he probably had to book an extra seat for it on the plane over.
Skarsgård is thrillingly impossible in this context. Against a prosaic backdrop of drive-in burgers, cat food and flat-screen TVs, he seems geologically out of place. Watching him is like watching a Mountain Elm pull up its roots and walk purposefully through the streets of London.
Which is more or less how he’s treated by his colleagues, most of whom keep a wary distance from the loon who talks to himself. Joining Roberts as Stevie are Lesley Manville as River’s no-nonsense boss, and new partner Ira King (Adeel Akhtar), all three leavening presences, bringing lightness and naturalism to play against Skarsgård’s natural heft.
Inside all the familiar genre trappings—the gunned-down ex-partner, the arse-kicking boss, thrilling foot chases, expensive London skylines, a detective that doesn’t play by the rules—is an emotionally meaningful drama led by charismatic performances. It’s perfect autumn stuff.
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