The Fall episode 1 review: Dark Descent

Has BBC2 crime drama The Fall starring Gillian Anderson reinvigorated the serial killer genre? Er, no. Here's Louisa's review...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 Dark Descent

What kind of psychology can maintain a successful existence in the ordinary world and a secret life as a woman strangler? Five-part crime drama The Fall wants to tell us, which is a pity because judging by its first episode, it doesn’t have the first effing clue.

Jamie Dornan plays Paul Spector, loving father, husband, and grief counsellor by day; murderous knicker-sniffing bastard by night. The Fall is proud as punch of the irony therein. Here’s Spector kissing his sweet daughter good night, now here he is strangling a woman to death. Do you see? He’s both of those things. A loving dad/psycho killer/fond hubby/pervert predator. How’s that for complex characterisation?

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It’s the same logic that must think The Fall’s misogyny slate (sexy, naked, female corpses abound in episode one) has been wiped clean by sticking Gillian Anderson in a suit and having her boss everyone about. By now, you’ve probably read as many columns complaining about crime TV’s fetish approach to hot dead girls as you’ve seen nude victims arrayed like odalisques at murder scenes, but we’ll stop writing ‘em when telly stops making eyes at the cadavers. The Fall’s camera – and it’s by no means the only culprit of this – travels over its pics of previous murder victims like a poor-taste Vogue fashion shoot. Gagged, throttled, and stuffed in a cupboard; it’s the new Derelicte.

The twist of showing Spector loping between night-time stalking liaisons and Kids Say The Funniest Things-style encounters with his rugrats isn’t quite as fascinating or menacing as The Fall would have you believe. Chiefly because whether at home, at work, or with his hands wrapped around the neck of a victim, The Fall‘s villain just isn’t that interesting. TV serial killers can be a number of things: disgusting, charismatic, genius, seductive even… but rarely dull. Paul Spector though? Talk about the banality of evil.

If episodes two to five go on to expand on Spector’s pathology in subtle, illuminating ways that unfurl past this week’s Fisher Price grasp of dramatic irony, then I’ll gladly print out this review and swallow it. If his character evolves beyond being the hair-twirling tween of serial killers, doodling dreamy pictures of his victims in a special scrapbook and scribbling ‘I heart strangling ladies’ around the margins of his homework, I’ll print and eat it twice.

Anderson, incidentally, is great as the cougar-y DSI Stella Gibson, and by far the best thing about The Fall so far. Eating burgers the size of a toddler’s face, drinking goldfish bowls of wine, and telling nosy-parker journos to fuck off… she’s a delight. The shame is that her character is surrounded by morons, from her immediate superior, to her underlings, to her Strangle-Dad antagonist. Why fly a Detective Superintendent over to perform a 28-day review then ignore her first lead only to – in the inimitable words of The Fall’s script – “let linkage blindness let the killer kill again”? Crime in Belfast is politicised, we’re told early on. Not this one it isn’t, unless Gibson’s poised to uncover a tangled cop conspiracy that goes all the way to the… apologies, I dozed off for a moment there.

The script’s levity also feels poorly judged in a drama about a murderer who stalks and kills women. Gallows humour is one thing, but tacky LOL moments about sex toys, cats, and concealing hand-drawn titty cartoons of Spector’s counselling patients from their thuggish husbands are quite another. Perhaps it wasn’t the same in your living room, but at the screening I attended there were splutters of laughter throughout. Ha! That peppy babysitter is all but running at that strangler neck-first, they seemed to say. Just wait until she finds out what he really is! Ditto the crass combination of the comedy police tag-team lightly shrugging off the absence of a stalkee at her home address when she’s really upstairs having the life squeezed out of her.

Much of the script shares the same shallow delight in its trick. Aside from the inelegance of the likes of “I’ve done things, bad things, in the past, really bad things” and unlikelihood of a boozy chat between colleagues taking in a treatise on desire, need, and the gender politics of remote Chinese tribespeople, there’s the brick-subtle irony of Spector’s wife playfully calling him a horrible man (he is one!), and him telling a pal caught out visiting a lap dancing club that he “should have destroyed the evidence” (like he does! With his murders!). At one point Spector thuddingly remarks, “No one knows what’s going on in someone else’s mind, and life would be intolerable if they did”. It’d be a damned sight more tolerable than this, for a start.

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Credit where it’s due, the direction had a good few tricks up its sleeve, not least a stylish, fluent overhead shot travelling omnisciently over the Spectors’ first floor. Anderson’s character too, despite swimming being her major personality trait at this early stage, has a ton of potential. Appreciating we’re only a fifth of the way through, the pity is that The Fall thinks by revealing its killer from the off, it’s reinvigorating the genre, when all it’s done is undo the valves and let the tension guff out.

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