Inside Man has been hanging around for a little while now, which, in TV terms, is never normally a good thing. It points to channels not quite knowing what to do with a show, not quite sure where to put it and raises questions about the actual overall quality of it. All of these things may well lead to red flags, but one look at the pedigree of this four-parter and all worries are assuaged.
It’s created and written by Steven Moffat, he of Doctor Who and Sherlock fame, and in front of the camera there’s premiere talent, too. David Tennant is back (has he ever actually been away? He’s one of the more prolific and exciting actors of our age), the fabulous Stanley Tucci is here as well, as is the star of the brilliant It’s A Sin, Lydia West. That’s a cracking trio for starters.
The things you know you’ll get with Steven Moffat are inventiveness, boldness, wit and, sometimes, more cleverness than is strictly necessary. His Sherlock series were all of these things, and he always seems to me to be interested in male protagonists who are multi-faceted, multi-levelled and often disassociated from people or society because of their intellect and brilliance. Or in Dracula’s case the need to drink the blood of humans to survive.
All of these characteristics serve to make his lead characters untouchable in some way, emotionally unavailable and arrogant in others. And yet we’re drawn to them like a moth to a light bulb because of their razzle-dazzle and their charisma.
In this series, you assume this lead character is going to be played by David Tennant. But it’s not.
To begin with, we’re presented with different story strands, all seemingly unconnected.
A bravura first scene features a young woman on a tube train, outrageously and heinously hassled and then threatened with sexual behaviour by a man who thinks he’s beyond reproach. Despite his threats, before long a group of women in the carriage begin filming him on their mobile phones and turning the tables on him. The first woman who speaks up is teacher Janice Fife (Dolly Wells), and the woman she defends is journalist Beth Davenport (West). In the car park, they swap numbers but Janice – who is the epitome of British straightforwardness – declines to be interviewed.
And then we switch – characters, locations, the lot. Now we’re in an American prison, on death row no less, to meet Jefferson Grieff (Tucci), an inmate due to be put to death for murdering his wife. He’s in an interview/visitor room with his death row inmate-mate, serial killer (but highly genial and intelligent nonetheless) Dillon Kempton. They’re talking to an Arizona congressman who is facing a dilemma, and it soon transpires that Grieff – a professor before he committed his crime – takes on ‘cases’ to solve while behind bars. Apparently, the warden is more than happy for him to do this, but we shan’t dwell on that.
It’s an interesting concept – a high concept, no less. A man who solves crimes but is incarcerated. A brilliant, dazzling man; a likeable man who accepts that he did (very) wrong and must be punished, and a man who operates outside of society because of his brilliance. Sound familiar?
Then we go back to Blighty and meet priest Harry Watling (Tennant), whose life is about to go very wrong. He’s finishing up at church when one of his underlings – a troubled young man – asks him to hold on to a memory stick because he doesn’t want his mum to find it. Bad, bad idea. Watling – a pillar of society and A Nice Guy – picks up teacher Janice Fife from the car park at the station and drives her to his family home, where she’s due to teach his son.
But that’s when things go very wrong. Very, very wrong. Janice inadvertently finds out what’s on that memory stick (child porn) and suddenly Henry Watling is spinning. He tries to explain that it’s not his and it belongs to someone from church, which she doesn’t believe. Then, Watling tries to save his son who Janice thinks the memory stick belongs to. So he takes the blame.
It’s a situation that just gets worse and worse and spirals very quickly.
And then he realises in a panic – all expertly played by Tennant – what this will do to his life and family if it ever got out. So he assaults her and throws her down into the cellar and locks the door (shades of Happy Valley, series one there).
Here Moffat is concerned with exploring one question and one question only – what would it take for good people (in this case men) to do something horrid? Grieff murdered his wife but you can’t help like his intelligence and quiet confidence and question why he did what he did, while Watling has assaulted his son’s tutor and is on the verge of doing something even worse to save himself. And we’re also questioning why this man of the cloth, this man of morals, would do such a thing.
There are juicy, perversely delicious juxtapositions and dilemmas in play here, and we all know Moffat like to play games, to conjur these impossible scenarios.
Back in the US, journalist Beth Davenport interviews Grieff for an article she wants to write about the Death Row Detective as she wants to call him. He dissuades her, and disarms her with his honesty and intelligence and even though she’s appalled by his crime – as is he – there’s an obvious bond between the two, or at least a mutual respect.
She decides not to write the article, but when she receives a text message from Janice, locked in Watling’s cellar back in the UK she doesn’t know who to turn to. It’s then she calls for Grieff. It’s time for the Death Row Detective to go to work.
What started out as pure portmanteau soon came together, its disparate parts connecting cleverly and entertainingly. And, furthermore, Moffat may have just created a new classic, unconventional detective and sidekick combo.
The best things about this? It made you think, made you squirm, and it got you hooked quickly. And it felt fresh, when – let’s face it – nothing much in the crime drama genre feels fresh these days.
Episode two tomorrow night.
Inside Man is shown on BBC One and iPlayer in the UK