Alternately, Judge Clark Douglas is great at dealing with his personal life and terrible at his job.
A sharp detective with a messy life.
In recent years, we've begun to see the 90-minute episode format begin to grow in popularity on British television. It's an intriguing idea and one with a lot of potential, but one senses the growing pains in attempting to find the right rhythms for the extended running times. While some programs have managed to find the right balance (Sherlock, Zen), others have simply turned in padded versions of stories that should be hour-long adventures (the first season of Murphy's Law comes to mind). Now we have Vera, a 90-minute drama that actually seems to need a longer running time for each episode.
The series focuses on the life of detective Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn, Pride and Prejudice), a no-nonsense workaholic who is quite good at her job and quite bad at almost every other aspect of life. Her partner Joe Ashworth (David Leon, RocknRolla) and many of her other co-workers find her rather challenging to work with, quietly referring to her as "Mussolini" behind her back. Still, Vera's persuasive methods are effective and she always gets the job done. Over the course of this series, she tackles four different murder mysteries and discovers the ugly truth behind each of them.
Before I launch into Vera's sizable structural problem, I should note that this is clearly exceptional television in a wide variety of ways. Despite the somewhat formulaic premise, Vera manages to feel distinctive in a world overrun by detective shows. Yes, there are moments that recall Prime Suspect and particularly AMC's The Killing (the atmospheric similarities between this series and that one are sometime quite eerie), but the program's cynical "everyone is at least a little bit guilty" worldview brings some interesting shades to the proceedings. It's not a matter of guilty and not guilty; it's a matter of guilty, guiltier, and guiltiest.
Blethyn's performance is kind of marvelous to behold, as the actress effortlessly sidesteps the pitfalls of turning this character into a run-of-the-mill mashup of other TV detectives (though like so many fictional members of that profession in the modern era, she owes an enormous deal to Columbo). She's quite good as the bulldog detective plowing through the evidence, but she's fantastic as a woman confronted with the unpleasant business of having off-the-clock interactions with other human beings (her scene with Joe's children is a gentle comic delight).
Vera is based on a series of novels by Ann Cleeves, which is where the show runs into its biggest problem: stuffing an entire book into a 90-minute running time. Rather than finding ways to simplify the elaborate plots offered in the novels, Vera basically provides us with the television equivalent of speed-reading. We're introduced to a vast new mix of characters in each episode, and there's so much information to get across that we don't really have time to get to know any of them very well. By the time the final verdict arrives, we don't really know the characters well enough to have any emotional investment in what happens. The series does a good job of developing Vera and some of her team members, but there are simply way too many new characters to deal with each episode. It's not too difficult to keep up with what's going on; it's difficult to care when Character X turns out to be the villain because Character X has only been given five minutes of screen time and hasn't had sufficient time to make an impression.
While I fear expanding each novel into an entire series could lead to its own set of problems (perhaps some The Killing-style feet-dragging and an overdose of aimless red herrings), I can't help but feel that such an approach would be preferable (it would also provide more material to work from—given that all four of Cleeves' Stanhope novels were adapted this season, the producers will be on their own in season two). As it is, Vera is an uncomfortably compressed version of a pretty good television show. It's certainly worth a look for Blethyn's performance, but I hope that the second season will find a way to correct some of the storytelling frustrations this first go-round offers.
The DVD transfer is middling, despite the fact that each 90-minute installment has been given its own disc. Detail is decent, but the image looks a bit soft and flesh tones can be a little greenish. It looks better than it would on a standard-def television, but not by a lot. Audio is rather strong, with the moody score (downbeat even during the lighter moments) blending well with the dialogue and sound design. Extras are limited to a brief text summary of each episode (considering that each is only a paragraph, I'm hesitant to even call these extras).
We'll mark this one up as a misdemeanor.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
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