This review contains spoilers.
Episode one of What Remains presents us with a game of Cluedo. A woman’s body is discovered in the loft of a shared address, but who killed her, and with what? Was it the maths teacher with the rope? The journalist with the candlestick? Or the lesbian with the lead piping?
We’ll find out over the course of the next three episodes thanks to David Threlfall’s drowsy old-school detective, Len Harper, a widowed tortoise in a leather jacket determined to solve the case despite it landing in his in-tray on his – yes, really – last day on the force. (At least, we hope he’s going to solve it. Since one woman had to point to her roundly pregnant belly and explain “It’s a baby” to him, there’s some cause to doubt his deductive skills.) Well might Len identify with poor dead Melissa Young, living as he does alone, now-retired, and with no children.
That’s the distressing kernel inside What Remains’ whodunit intrigue: how can somebody’s disappearance go unnoticed? More provocatively put, were you to disappear one day, would anyone miss you? It’s a more mainstream phrasing of the question posed by Carol Morley’s powerful 2011 film, Dreams of a Life.
Wrapping its tragic themes up in a murder mystery thriller may have secured What Remains a prime BBC One slot, but it also cheapens them. Unlike Dreams of a Life’s empathetic, non-exploitative approach to the deeply sad story of a young woman whose death goes unmarked for years, What Remains goes for shock over human sadness. Its compassionate enquiry into the isolation of modern society is undermined by the callous pun in its title and its gruesome insistence on parading a decomposed corpse around like a memento mori carnival queen. One glimpse of that grey, powdery mass of exploded person would have been enough, surely. Did we have to see it from every angle on the slab and hear about swelling, gas build-up and burst abdomens?
Perhaps the grim confrontation with our own inevitable jellification was part of the deal. A shock to provoke us into reforging lost connections, phoning our parents, and knocking on elderly neighbours’ doors during cold snaps. Either way, it’s unfortunate for What Remains to debut in the same slot as series two of Charlie Brooker and Daniel Maier’s A Touch Of Cloth crime spoof, which calls out exactly this morbid fascination with fast-edited gruesomeness in the genre.
Who’s on the suspect list then? Number one so far – meaning it almost certainly won’t be him – is David Bamber’s small-minded jobsworth Joe Sellers, a man with an undisguised dislike of the deceased, and, like everyone else at 8 Coulthard Street, a secret. Perhaps the killer could be the ex-student Joe keeps mysteriously in the flat to cook his sausages. There’s also Steven Mackintosh’s journalist and his stoner son, a quarrelling lesbian couple (one of whom scarpered sharpish upon seeing the police cars), and my best guess, the former tenant who’s gone to Canada. Out of the running are newcomers pregnant Vidya (Amber Rose Revah) – rarely seen out of her La Senza nightie – and blokey bully Michael (our pal Russell Tovey).
Its ‘modern life is rubbish’ loneliness manifesto aside, there’s little so far to lift What Remains above its many peers in the increasingly corpse-and-cliche-packed TV listings. Written by Inside Men’s Tony Basgallop, directed by Blackpool and Spies of Warsaw’s Coky Giedroyc, and with a roundly capable cast (Bamber is reliably good), it’s off to a competent, if workaday start. Let’s see if the next three instalments can separate it from the herd.
What Remains continues next Sunday on BBC One at 9pm.
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