Thursday, August 22, 2013

Vera: Series One

Honestly, I can't remember how I discovered Vera, I think it was a Netflix recommendation. Possibly because I liked Sherlock, who knows.

But I have been particularly interested in discovering new mystery series, in whatever medium, that feature older women detectives. Obviously there's Miss Marple, and I haven't really delved into that yet. But I'm tired of the typical mystery show cliches with the men always in the lead. And usually with some hot young thing that's impossibly in some expert role but never seems to have the brains for it. I'm looking at your casting decisions, CSI. You're constantly saying these extremely young, traditionally attractive women are experts in their field when that field takes 30 years post graduate work or something.

That's a tangent for another day though (and really, let's establish up front that I love the original CSI and have seen almost all of it). The thing that I love about Vera is how absolutely non-traditional it is. Vera Stanhope is not just an older woman as the lead detective. She's a woman in charge of an entire precinct, so she has a position of power. She's not a mother figure, she's actually quite acerbic and tough on everyone. And I'm not talking tough love either, I'm talking yelling and throwing things. She doesn't come across as a prodigy that people begrudgingly respect because even though she's a woman, she's still so brilliant. And the way they dress and style Brenda Blethyn, she's definitely not getting ahead on her looks.

She's just a good, solid policewoman who does her job at all costs and does it well. You get the sense that she rose in the ranks through sheer determination, along with a significant amount of skill. In short, she's exactly the way that male characters are usually written in this type of role, and yet there's no big deal really ever made of it. I can't recall a single instance of somebody being insubordinate because she's a woman, or even really commenting on it.

Her partner IS a hot young thing, but he's not a love interest in the slightest. He's actually religious, married, and his wife has their third kid in the first episode. He's a father and a family man, and always much more polite and respectful than Vera. It's a pretty distinct role reversal, and the actor, David Leon, plays the part extremely well. All of the acting on the show is top notch.

But the best part is the mystery - it's actually a mystery. I've talked before in my reviews of Castle (I think) about how I adore the genre but it gets a bit hard for me to love sometimes because I've read too much and usually can figure out the ending. But on Vera, there's no huge telegraphing of the main clue so that the audience doesn't miss it. The story progresses normally, the information is given to us with the same weight and importance across the board, and it's not the thing that was obviously meant to be forgotten because it was portrayed so unimportantly that you know it's important that ends up being the main part of the solution.

I've usually forgotten that part or dismissed it because it's all just so matter of fact. And because the show is about Vera, and Joe, and the rest of the detectives in Northumbria. You're too busy paying attention to the character development, which is so well done, that when you remember the mystery it's because the show is revealing the killer and you're just along for the ride.

The episodes are all very long, because that's the way the British do their tv. It's really more a series of tv movies than a series, and season one is only four episodes long. But they're all well worth it, and I wish that we had more stuff like this on American tv.


Normally, I review seasons of tv shows, mostly because I watch them too quickly to really do much else. This time I'm reviewing about two and a half episodes, because that's all it took before I gave up.

I'm tempted to say the fan equivalent of "it's not you, it's me." Maybe Hex wasn't for me. Maybe it wasn't the right time. But really, while there are some things the show had going for it, in the end it was just too much of a big mush. There are shows that have recovered from such lackluster opening episodes, even shows with terrible first AND second seasons that then become great.

I never really got the sense that Hex was one of those, and that's why I watched until something distracted me and never put the disc back in the dvd player.

The acting is good, and I think that's why I ended up with this in my Netflix queue in the first place was that several of the actors are more well known for other things (most notably Michael Fassbender, though he's really neither here nor there for me, just recognizable). The school principle is actually Colin Salmon, who I've really loved on Arrow this season. He was definitely the highlight of the episodes I watched.

But the actors can't really rise above the material or the general tone of the production. The story is a mishmash of old tropes and cliches that I've seen a million times before. Oh, the rich white woman is sleeping with a slave and she's fallen into using Voodoo! She uses it to summon a demon! The manor where she did the summoning has now been turned into something where impressionable young women are available to reenact the whole story, this time a boarding school! The main character is drawn to the demon because he's a sexy, sexy man but he's dangerous so she also has to stop him, or does she? I'm already bored.

That's not even mentioning the fact that the show has a preoccupation with sex that could have been interesting if it was done in anything other than the most exploitative and cliche way it possibly could have been.

Basically, the only thing in the first few episodes that made me take notice was when they killed off a main character that I wasn't expecting would die, but then she came back as a ghost immediately so meh.

I read a summary of what happens in the show in later episodes and I really think I made the right call. If I had continued watching it and saw those things happen after I'd invested time and energy I might have broken something and my dvd player has enough problems.