I checked out the new Steven Moffat TV series Inside Man (streaming on Netflix in the US) because of the cast and the idea of a “death row detective”, although I’ve been very iffy on his skills as a solo showrunner. The show lived down to my expectations, with outstanding acting trying to support a completely ludicrous core premise.
The cast includes:
- David Tennant as Harry, the local vicar in a picture-perfect English village
- Stanley Tucci as Mr. Grieff (Dickensian, that), an imprisoned criminology professor who murdered his wife
- Dolly Wells (previously seen in Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ Dracula) as Janice, a very clever woman who tutors Tennant’s son
- Louis Oliver as Ben, the son (also Moffat’s son in real life)
- Lydia West (also previously seen in Dracula) as Beth, a journalist, friend to Janice, and helper of Grieff (mostly a plot device and someone to tell things to)
- Lyndsey Marshal as the vicar’s wife, Mary
- Atkins Estimond as a fellow death row inmate with a perfect memory who gives Grieff someone to talk to
They are all excellent. The problem is the inciting incident. Spoilers will follow.
A verger at the church (a non-clergy helper) hands Harry a thumb drive so the verger’s mother won’t find it. Janice does find it, and it turns out to have child porn on it.
The rest of the four hour-long episodes consist of Harry making her a captive in the cellar so he can convince her it doesn’t belong to either Ben or himself. This then becomes an off-and-on debate over how Harry and Mary (ugh) can get out of the situation, and whether they should kill Janice, while she manipulates them.
Every decision Harry makes is … I never believed any of them, although Tennant tries his very best. The actions don’t make sense to me, and the series of bad decisions end up seeming ridiculous. Mostly, I had a hard time believing that a vicar would protect a pedophile to that extent instead of just turning him in. They make a joke out of “what people expect from vicars” that nods towards some past church abuses, but Harry doesn’t seem to mind people thinking he’s just more of the same.
Tucci’s Grieff is very Sherlockian, obviously, making “observations” that most people might call “guesses” but that turn out to explain situations others find puzzling.
Inside Man made me wonder if this is what Sherlock would have been like without Gatiss’ involvement: less sense of humanity, less humor (and what there is here is dark), less of a lighter touch. The problem with writing clever people (both Grieff and Janice are meant to be super-intelligent) is that when you choose dumb revelations, they stand out. Grieff’s first case turns on a stupid bit of word play that doesn’t stand up to the “figure it out” multiple teases. But that’s one of Moffat’s tells that I don’t care for, the importance of the surprise and creating emotional impact without enough establishing groundwork or, more importantly, character consistency.
I also found myself wondering about what inspired a show where the internet causes people to kill their family members. Especially since he cast his own kid in it. (Who is adequate but not up to the ridiculous final scene, but I’m not sure who would be. Also, I found his hair distracting in a “is that a real style?” way.) Tennant’s character’s motivation is constantly “protect my son”, to the point of sacrificing himself in multiple ways. That’s some psychological morass right there, and when you add in all the “online sins”… yeah. Thinking about this at least kept me interested.
I’m not sure how much of this was an intentional attempt at making an observation about sexism. Both Grieff and Janice see much more than others and are capable of predicting behavior because of it. The show opens with Janice and the reporter meeting because of a guy hassling women on public transit, standing too close to them and pushing his crotch in their faces. They come together to stand up to him.
Both end up prisoners because of their cleverness, one held by a single man, and one held by the system. However, the clever man has people seeking his advice, and special privileges granted because of it, while the clever woman is beaten up (by herself at times) and hidden away. He also has people who assist him, while the point is made several times that she has no friends. (Also, her cleverness seems to have been forgotten in the last episode, which leans heavily into screaming at each other.) At least there are several major roles for women in this, and they have substantial interactions with each other.
The women are also much more brutally practical. And the overall message, perhaps unintentionally, is “don’t do favors for co-workers or you’ll end up a murderer.” Or maybe I’m a bit cynical… but that seems to be the mood of this show.
If you want to make a drinking game out of it, count how many times Tennant calls himself a “fucking vicar.”
The Grieff sections reminded me of Prodigal Son, starring Michael Sheen as a similar genius in prison. Having Sheen play against Tennant would be a dream mash-up.
If you want to speculate on how much they were hoping for a sequel, note that we never find out why Grieff killed his wife, although there are repeating comments about how anyone can be a murderer, it just takes the right person or one bad day.