Koch Vision // 2008 // 236 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kristin Munson (Retired) // June 25th, 2008
"You don't get to be pimp Master General by dealing in sunshine and
-- Saunders Welch, Bow Street Runner
Forget anything on network television, City of Vice is the best new series of 2008. A costume drama with comic book thrills, it's all that and a tri-corner hat.
In 1750, people are coming to London in droves, and that means there are more gangs, pimps, madams, and thieves than ever before. Henry Fielding (Ian McDiarmid, Return of the Jedi), author of Tom Jones, and his blind brother, John (Iain Glen, Kingdom of Heaven), are local magistrates, sick of the crime and corruption in their corner of the city.
Older brother Henry is impulsive and suffering from gout, while John is a straitlaced, Georgian version of Daredevil, compensating for his blindness with an amazing memory and phenomenal hearing. Together, this crime-fighting odd couple decides to form Britain's first police force: The Bow Street Runners.
City of Vice contains all five episodes of the first season on two discs.
As the Fieldings struggle to find the funding to get their police force off the ground, a prostitute begs them to rescue her 7-year-old sister from a brothel.
The Bow Street Runners have their first official case when a prostitute is found raped and mutilated in a bath house. Is there a Ripper on the loose?
When a murdered priest turns out to have been the victim of blackmail, The Bow Street Runners venture into foreign territory: the homosexual subculture.
The Fieldings have their hands full while investigating the robbery of a Scottish merchant who would rather ransom his belongings than see the robbers hanged.
Tom Jones, leader of a notorious Irish gang, escapes from jail, and Henry decides to follow him into his own territory.
Eighteenth century criminals are not the dandy highwaymen that Adam Ant would have us believe in "Stand and Deliver." Thankfully, the Bow Street Runners are like an 18th century version of the Untouchables, only with cooler outfits and more fisticuffs.
The five cases in City of Vice, taken from the diaries of the real Henry Fielding, share an overlapping storyline of the shaky government support in the early days of the force, but are otherwise fun jaunts through the slums and brothels of London. A 3-D map swoops down and around the city from one location to the next, keeping the set budget low and helping you visualize the city as a whole and not just a handful of familiar names.
Everything in this world is a scummy shade of gray, and that's part of what makes City of Vice a strong drama. The heroes are far from heroic, making plenty of mistakes and dubious judgment calls, and sometimes the robbers and whores they're pursuing are downright likable. Despite the tiny episode order, both Fieldings are fully fleshed out by season's end, and both Ians do a great job of humanizing their characters, even when they're teetering on the edge of legality themselves.
Where the show really excels is in the scripts. Not only are the writers telling good crime stories, but they're able to do it without turning things into a lesson, casually working in all sorts of trivia from the "good bits" version of English History. Merry Old Englande: where a thief taker could miraculously recover all your stolen belonging for a tidy fee, and sex with virgin children was thought to cure Syphilis. An entire episode focuses on Molly houses -- places where gay men could safely interact in a time when sodomy was a hanging offense -- with sensitive and diverse portrayals of queerness served up with some Georgian moralizing that's also, sadly, modern.
As you would expect, there's plenty of sexual content, bare breasts, and adult language, but all the genuinely shocking stuff comes from the plot. Plenty of moments made me gasp or wince (or sniffle, if I'm honest). But, even though the subject matter is dark, there's adventure and humor and a fast pace to keep the series from wallowing in its own filth (unlike The Vice, with which it shares a producer and a writer).
The grimy gloom of the London underworld is presented in anamorphic widescreen, which has a few seconds of jagginess scattered among the scenes. A 2.0 stereo track highlights Richard Blair-Oliphant's evocative score, but the 12-minute "Making of" is your typical EPK exercise, although it is neat to see the sets in the bright light of day. The DVDs have the same issues as all of Koch's British releases: no subtitles. I feel like I'm flogging a dead horse at this point, but just because we're speaking the same language doesn't mean we can understand every word a Brit says.
The show has an irritating habit of reintroducing certain facts in every episode for the folks just tuning in. Okay, so Henry's scandalous marriage isn't something that can be easily implied by the action, but is it really necessary to come right out and tell us that the character with milky contacts and a mile-long stare is blind?
Sex, swearing, and violence, City of Vice has it all, plus swirling frock coats and smoking flintlocks. The series just aired in January in the UK and hasn't been picked up by American stations yet, public or cable, so this is your first, maybe only, chance to see them uncut.
Channel 4 is ordered to stand and deliver a second season, or face the business end of my pistol.
Review content copyright © 2008 Kristin Munson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 236 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Making The City of Vice
* Official Site