Judge Brett Cullum has another, secret personality that can't wait for a season set of Matlock. Needless to say, the two personalities are at war.
Dr. Jekyll: Trust me…I'm a psychopath!
British television had a big hit with the reboot of Doctor Who, and now the same production team breathes life into an equally iconic British horror/science fiction classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Sexy, violent, and loads of fun, Jekyll brings the old creaky classic novel into the modern age with a big bang in a lavish science fiction production…with no potions, prosthetics, or dry ice in sight. James Nesbitt (Waking Ned Devine) takes on the lead role, dealing with trying to protect the good doctor's wife and kids from his nasty bad side while dodging a mysterious government agency who wants to exploit his condition. Jekyll is great slick entertainment that provides unique thrills with an oft-told tale.
Facts of the Case
In this re-imagining we are introduced to Dr. Tom Jackman (Nesbitt), who has been struggling for six months with mysterious, troubling blackouts. The first scene finds him strapping himself in to a chair to prepare for a change while an attractive assistant aids him. The frightening thing is, during these episodes he becomes someone else, a sociopathic creature who lives only for carnal pleasures. The good doctor has GPS tracking on himself, and entirely different sets of wallets and clothes for each personality. The two entities have established rules, such as scheduled transformations and boundaries for each. It's a well-choreographed "body share" for two beings with completely different agendas. The good doctor by agreement can't seek a cure, and the bad side can't threaten the family of the alter ego.
Rules are made to be broken and, in the first episode of the six-part series, the situation becomes dire as the two personalities declare war on each other. The monster wants an identity, and begins to covet the doctor's life. The good doctor finds out why he's changing, and realizes his Hyde persona is stalking his family. And what of the mysterious black vans following every move? Seems a government agency is all too interested in what is going on, and that can't bode well. The race is on to find a cure before the dark side consumes all that is good.
It's a mixture of mystery, comedy, horror, and eroticism that works even if it is a bit all over the place. Part of the charm of the series is that it is a delicious collage of many different genres and tones. Though the lead character has two distinct personalities, the series has several different styles managing to meld into a romantic conspiracy thriller with a sci-fi/horror twist. Jekyll takes a smartly fun script and allows the lead actor to run away with it. James Nesbitt gets to play the two sides without anything more than a pair of black contacts and slicker hair to go bad. As a testament to the mad skills of the thespian, nothing else is needed to create two completely different people. Dr. Jackman is meek, nerdy, and repressed. His alter ego is unapologetically psychopathic, sexy, and free. The entire series hinges on his performance, and he pulls it off magnificently. The Hyde character is a mixture of a mincing Alan Cumming combined with high-camp Jack Nicholson, but he's believable as a threat. The smartest touch is Nesbitt allows small traces of the other to seep into each character like a human yin and yang design. It's a cheeky performance that incorporates Nesbitt's best bits, and allows him to play at a volume of level of three for the good doctor and go up to 11 as Hyde. We believe in and cheer for both simultaneously.
The supporting cast is equally up to the challenge as the lead to inhabit this dual world of many genres. Sexy and cool Michelle Ryan (The Bionic Woman) is a concerned assistant hired to manage the two personalities. Gina Bellman (Coupling) proves she can do drama as strongly as comedy while playing the put-upon wife who is not sure what is happening until it is too late. Myra Syal and Fenella Woolgar play intensely smart lesbian private dicks who have been mysteriously bribed to stop following Dr. Jackman. And for the Star Wars fans, Dennis Lawson appears as the head of the institute where Jackman works. It's a wonderful cast, and they each manage the shifts in tone and twists in their characters with great panache.
Jekyll is a simple story told in a complicated way. It's the tried and true tale of a man battling with his id—that primal part of the brain that controls basic primitive instincts. We've seen the story retold as a werewolf or Hulk, but this is a man who changes into another man capable of walking the streets unnoticed. Newer elements to the tale are brought in with modern science as well as a government conspiracy. Interestingly enough, though the personalities are at war, they both have to align to fight the real bad guys of the series. Where the original tale was about the dangers of duality to an individual, this Jekyll begins to advance the idea we need both sides to survive the modern world. The plot is a serpentine roller coaster ride full of endless twists and turns, and the show moves so quickly you can't skip ten minutes of any episode without getting lost. The show gleefully takes on a frenetic pace that doesn't slow down for a second, and it takes great joy in moving in directions you'd never expect.
BBC America does a nice job with the DVD, piling on extras and extended episodes that make it the best way to view the series. Each episode is given the "director's cut" treatment, without the trims one would see if you caught Jekyll during its broadcast run either in the United Kingdom or on U.S. basic cable. The language is saucier, the violence a bit more bloody, and the sex more primal. The transfer is a solid widescreen, but at times a bit dark. Audio is fine as well with a stereo mix that does well with the score and dialogue balance. Sometimes it can get harsh with so many elements in the mix. Extras include an informative commentary on the pilot with director Douglas MacKinnon, writer Steven Moffat, and producer Elaine Cameron teaming up to talk about the show while it was in production. On Disc One, there is also a nice look at how a scene was composed with real lions, a daunting task considering the big cats are real and not CGI creations. On Disc Two, the finale gets another informative commentary from actress Gina Bellman, director Matt Lipsey, and executive producer Beryl Vertue. Also included is an in-depth 34-minute look at the making of the series, and how the creative team formulated this new high-concept series from the old novel of note.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much fun as Jekyll is, there are holes in the logic of the series, and at times it is too clever for its own good. It sometimes seems that characters conveniently forget facts for a spell, or they come up with pithy one-liners under dire circumstances that would render most people speechless. There's a broad camp quality that never quite feels like horror. Hyde is not a monster; rather he is an impish Irish devil we root for instead of the good doctor. The creators want to establish the same tone Joss Whedon did so well with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a mix of horror and comedy that provided both masterfully. Usually Jekyll does manage to juggle the two well, but now and then a scene falls too far on one side or the other. The creators are trying to meld an awful lot of things into the show, and sometimes the elements feel shoehorned together with a gleeful "Ain't it great?" aw shucks charm. The writers know when they are being clever, and they aren't afraid to show off a bit.
Jekyll represents the new wave of British television, and joins the ranks of Hex and the new Doctor Who as slick, inventive fun. It's sexy and dark, with a lot of style and wit. American television could learn a lot from the quick pace and abbreviated six-show season that makes every moment count. Although the series is reaching for many different tones, the fact the story has been told fifty-eight times before gives me an appreciation for trying new things. Jekyll works because it is smartly done and a sexy, violent good time. It hinges on a bravura performance, and an intensely paced journey through every genre you can imagine. This is a re-imagining of a classic that actually works thanks to a smart team that knows how to wring life out of traditional material. Jekyll is a brilliant, handsome series that is well worth the investment to watch.
Jekyll is guilty of being bloody good fun that won't rot your brain. It's a schizophrenic, psychotic mess that is a joy to watch.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Commentary on Pilot with Director Douglas MacKinnon, Writer Steven Moffat, and Producer Elaine Cameron
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