Wild Bill episode 1 review: Rob Lowe in a confused retro crime comedy

ITV’s new Rob Lowe-starring cop drama is a blast from the past. Spoilers ahead in our episode 1 review…

This review contains spoilers. 

Supposing the multiverse exists, there’s a parallel dimension in which The Killing and its Scandi noir pals never happened – a world where desaturated continuing-story grimness exerted no influence on UK TV, and we kept on merrily making regional police romps about eccentric coppers with unusual methods upsetting the locals. 

PC Nick Rowan, Dalziel and Pascoe, Hetty Wainthrop … that lot would all still be wearing hats and solving cases of the week. You wouldn’t recognise a Sarah Lund jumper if one murdered your teenage daughter.

Via a wormhole, ITV’s Wild Bill joins us from that very dimension. Or perhaps from one even further back in time: the hallowed age of Lovejoy. A handsome lead bouncing around a very English backdrop, having it off with titled crumpet (Wild Bill and Lady Mary QC have only just met, but he’ll be visiting her chambers in no time) and going up against luxuriously accented Russian gangsters? It’s 1992 all over again, and not just because of Rob Lowe’s refusal to age. 

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Lowe plays Chief Constable Bill Hixon, a US police chief with a thing for numbers, brought over to Boston, Lincolnshire from Miami to cut jobs and improve stats. Bill’s kind of policing involves algorithms and diagrams, not people. Like Frasier Crane, he has degrees up the wazoo from Ivy League universities, a dad who was a beat cop, is haughtily disdainful and wears tuxes to hoity-toity operas. Unlike Frasier Crane, we meet him screaming in a Lincolnshire field, lobbing cabbages at the Russian mafia. 

The cabbage-lobbing side of Wild Bill feels like the show it wants to be. Episode one dutifully ties on a political thread about government cuts, poverty and Brexit, as well as a graver subplot about Bill’s teen daughter’s suicide attempt, but its serious side doesn’t marry with the frothy fish-out-of-water silliness seen elsewhere. 

To wit: Wild Bill’s grisly first case is peppered with pulp absurdity. A decapitated human head is discovered mid-serenade by a man in his pants singing Foreigner’s I Want To Know What Love Is. (He thinks it’s made out of marzipan.) A pathologist played by the always welcome Vicki Pepperdine apologises cheerily for accidentally snapping off the head’s ears mid-examination. Nobody, in the entire hour, utters a word as to where the body belonging to that head may be. It’s not that kind of cop show.

It’s the kind of cop show where the ‘killer’ – a spinning wind turbine – is cheekily revealed in the very first shot and then again as many times as possible without the camera person getting giddy. (‘It was meeeeee’ sing the whirling blades with a ghostly air.) It’s the kind of cop show where gags are made about the British having bad teeth and the Americans having big egos. It’s the kind of cop show that uses a plane wipe transition from the opening titles, like an episode of The A-Team. It’s the kind of cop show where a character’s name is announced as “Mar(e)k Ruddy” apparently only for the purposes of having a character later exclaim “Ruddy Marek!” It is very silly stuff, and every so often shows that it’s entirely aware of that fact.

Said ruddy exclaimer is Detective Muriel Yeardsley (Harlots and The ABC Murders’ Bronwyn James). She’s Hixon’s sidekick, a smart cookie who worships his algorithms and is the only local pleased to see him (“it’s like Ronaldo’s signed for The Imps!”). A local, she’s the cheese to Hixon’s chalk as well as being a chip off the old block and other cliches. A Boston girl through and through, Muriel’s no walkover, as proved by her chiding body positive speech about being farm stock and proud. On speakerphone in Bill’s car at one point, you can imagine Muriel is Kit from Knightrider, which is fun. We like Muriel.

The rest of the cast includes Bodyguard’s Anjli Mohindra as DCC Price and Hixon’s rival, and Line Of Duty’s Tony Pitts as the definitely bent Crime Commissioner Metcalfe, who drives a solid silver car and dresses like a Kray Brother on a day out at the races. Lady Mary QC, a naughty judge, is played by Detectorists‘ Rachael Stirling. Newcomer Aloreia Spencer is Bill’s precocious wise-cracking teen daughter Kelsey, the reason he goes against type and becomes emotionally involved in this week’s case involving a single mother and her dead teen daughter. Susan Lynch is the bereaved mother and has the unenviable task of conveying tragic emotion in the middle of this clown show. Lynch collapsing into Rob Lowe’s arms after a turbine-top suicide attempt is a memorably bonkers sight. 

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It’s all pretty bonkers. Wild Bill episode one ranges from the unconvincingly serious to the deeply silly. If, in the remaining episodes, it drops the nods towards sincerity and social comment and leans in to its jaunty retro vibe, it might even be a fine old time. Back in time.

Wild Bill continues next Wednesday at 9pm on ITV.