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Miserable Sleuths: Our Binge Watch Year in Review (Part 2)

Wow, has it really been 3+ months since I promised a second part to my miserable TV sleuth round-up? I don't have a good excuse, except that CRYBABY LANE came out in September, and I've been pretty self-absorbed/self-promotional since then. I could ignore the whole matter, but as I'm looking at finalizing holiday plans, it seems like the perfect time to neglect my family to do something listy and fun.

I think my other excuse for dropping the ball is the fact that, after watching the second, bewildering season to Top of the Lake, we seemed to have run out of murky detective shows to binge. I'm sure they're out there, but our fall and winter watching has been supernatural/horror filled—like Twin Peaks, Channel Zero, and American Horror Story.

Yes, we still watch AHS. We don't watch TWD anymore, so I think that evens out.

You'll notice that all the images in this post are of miserable sleuths looking at YOU in disappointment and vague horror. Except for Elisabeth Moss--she can't bear to look at you at all,

Last hired, first fired: Top of the Lake: China Girl.

I think I meant to talk about the mesmerizing first season of Jane Campion's nutty New Zealand gothic, but season two sort of blew the lid off the magic and replaced it with frantic eccentricity. I liked it? This time sex-crime Detective Robin Griffin (played by Elisabeth Moss) is relocated to Sydney, where she's investigating a murder connected to human trafficking and surrogacy, but all procedural trappings are quickly pushed aside for a more, um, thematic (?)approach to plot. This series is sometimes at turns incoherent and weirdly focused, leaving me grateful for the scenes with the Tommy Wisseau-lookalike baddie—at least he seemed to want something. But with Robin Griffin I kept asking the same questions: why does she sit on the floor all the time? What's with all the cereal-eating action?

Why so miserable: An abuse victim herself, Griffin is a sex-crime detective drowning in a horny world. For her, desire is dangerous, easily making the Detective one of Elisabeth Moss's most difficult-to-like characters—and yes, I'm including Zoey Bartlett in that count. (Quick reminder—"likability" is not something I care about, just making an observation here)

Oh golly, this one's set in West Yorkshire (Let's pretend we all know what that means) where the parka-wearing sleuth, Sgt. Catherine Cawood, has an insanely complicated and all-too realistic family situation. She's divorced with an adult jerk son and she's raising the child of her daughter who committed suicide. Yeah, you guessed it, the grandkid is the result of a rape, but wait—the sarge lives with her recovering addict-sister, played by O'BRIEN from Downton Abbey!!!!!!! The dialogue between the sisters is brilliant—TV rarely gets how adult siblings communicate. There is one more domestic wrinkle—the grandkid's "dad" is fresh out of prison. And you think your holidays are a pain in the ass . . .

Why so miserable: See above. Catherine's got a permanently pre-disappointed face--kidnappings, serial killings, human trafficking, and blackmail are the most manageable parts of her life.

This one's cross-genre, but the parka-wearing reaches a totality, owing to the Arctic setting. The show sprawls, with science fiction and horror underpinning the mystery. Misery is nicely distributed across multiple characters, many of whom are sleuths of one kind or another, but I'll focus on the one I give a crap about: Officer Petra Bergen, played by Alexandra Moen—YES, LUCY SAXON. (Her jiggling to "Voodoo Child" made The Rogue Traders relevant for a brief moment in 2007.) Petra is presented as a secondary character in a cast that features 90% secondaries, but by season two's end she comes closest to understanding what the heck is happening in the suddenly violence-ravaged town of Fortitude. Plus, the way she says "Fart-tit-toodt" is adorbs. Season two tries pretty hard to suggest she like-likes the demon Sherriff Dan Anderssen, played by a hissing Richard Dormer, but I'm not buying it entirely. When Dennis Quaid, as a crab-catcher run amok, says to her, "You love him?" it feels more like a workshop prompt than actual, written dialogue. But that may be more of a Quaid thing than a plot thing.

Why so miserable: Let Petra explain: "So many monsters. So much sacrifice."

Ugh, I'm getting to where I don't want to write about these shows anymore. Either it's because The Loch was a mess—that we watched anyway--or it's because I know Wallander is coming up in this list. In part 1 I referred to this series as Loch Ness, which is incorrect, so sue me. Oh wait, Wikipedia says the series goes by both names, I guess to keep everyone happy, which is what's wrong with this series. It feels like some sort of demographic bot put it together. Small-town cop, Annie Redford (played patiently by Laura Fraser), gets caught up in the investigation of the murder of her daughter's piano teacher, whose bound body is found on a jogging trail. Meanwhile, viewers are treated to another body—that of a man tethered to a stone at the bottom of the loch. Body #1 has had its pre-frontal cortex removed, and Body #2 is missing a heart. Thus, the show unleashes a heavy-handed but easily forgettable theme of "what lies beneath." This series also features O'BRIEN from Downton Abbey, as well as the oddly watchable John Sessions. Sessions is a bit wasted playing Redford's gruff but avuncular superior.

Why so miserable: Poor Annie Redford is trying to do her job in a town entirely populated by TV tropes walking around like regular human beings. That's got to be unsettling. Oh, and she probably read ahead to where we all find out who the underwater dude is. Yikes.

Oh god, we’re here. To the darkest, most miserable sleuth of them all, Kurt Wallander, played by Kenneth Branagh and the Bags Under Kenneth Branagh's Eyes. BUKBE for short. If BUKBE isn't already a line of IKEA bookcases, it should be. And here's the thing, Branagh is seriously handsome, but in this series he exudes mortal dread in every scene, whether he's examining a crime scene or making tea. If you think about this show as being about the failure of handsomeness to stave off madness and death, then that really twists how you think of Tom Hiddleston's supporting role in the first two seasons. Wallander has every right to be full of parkas, but refreshingly, our main sleuth is partial to pea coats and suit jackets.

Why so miserable: Um, daddy issues.

And so, I'm putting this project to bed. Despite my complaints, I'm using the same secret grading policy that I use for my fiction writing students—if you do one assignment well and with heart, you get an A. Even if you mess up the rules or bungle all the other assignments. By that standard, all these shows get As. Even The Loch, if only because it was more memorable than most "good" series out there.

cheers and parkas to you all!


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