BBC drama River won’t be the first time someone has tried to put a twist on the detective show format by adding in the ghosts of the dead themselves, but it’s definitely the most well thought out and deftly handled example I’ve ever seen.
(I’m avoiding spoilers here, but a small one was necessary in order to set up the premise, so discretion is advised.)
We’re introduced to our leads very quickly in the midst of a night-shift necessity; getting bad drivethrough. Detectives River (Stellan Skarsgård) and Stevenson (Nicola Walker) are a simultaneously well matched and miss-matched pair (think of a buddy cop movie 5 years after the end credits), River awkward and quiet, Stevenson outgoing and inclined to bouts of in-car karaoke, but each very comfortable with the others ways.
The singing stops however when the pair spot a car fitting the description of one involved in an open case and River ends up pursuing a suspect on foot (he can really peg it for an older chap) with Stevenson calling in backup.
The chase ends, badly, partly thanks to the backup they called in never arriving. Why? Because Stevenson made it and Stevenson we discover (in a moment filmed in a seemingly intentional reference to The 6th Sense) is a ghost.
Kind of, we’ll get back to that.
Stevenson (or “Stevie”) might be the most prominent spectre in River’s life (having been killed on duty only a few weeks prior) but she isn’t the only one, victims of crime it seems come and go with the cases he receives and are clearly not new to him, this familiarity means he’s able to hide the truth about his visions reasonably well from those around him, with the exception of Stevie (who’s death is still a very open wound) and one other, who’s a bit different from the rest.
Thomas Neill Cream (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’s Eddie Marsan) wasn’t a the victim of a crime, but the perpetrator of several, guilty of at least 5 murders by poison for which he was hanged in Newgate Prison in 1892. His ghost is a very different presence to the others River encounters, and clearly a long standing one, he’s cruel, taunting, and takes an obvious pleasure in reminding River of all the worst things in life. We only see him within the walls of the prison in which he was executed, but his influence is clearly capable of following River outside.
River might be able to hide what he sees for the most part, but not perfectly, in spite of his best efforts he still has a reputation as the “weirdo who talks to himself” within the force, one that’s only worsened with the loss of his living partner, to the extent that his Superintendent, Marcus McDonald (Game of Thrones’ Owen Teale) has decided to send him for a psychiatric evaluation, and expects him to fail it.
This is where River gets a little different from other examples of this small sub-genre, because River cannot see ghosts, the show doesn’t believe that River can see ghosts, and most importantly River himself does not believe that River can see ghosts. He has a psychiatric disorder (one he’s been hiding the severity of for decades) which causes him to hallucinate.
Obviously this isn’t new to the detective genre either, which is where we come to more subtle details of this show’s writing. River’s disorder is not a superpower (as much as I loved Hannibal Will was basically a just psychic by another name) his hallucinations (or “manifests” as is his preferred term) don’t tell him anything he can’t already know. Stevie comes across as very real because she was his friend for so long and until so recently, but Cream is someone he has only read about (albeit obsessively), and consequently speaks in a manner closer to words on a page than real conversation, and the voices of other manifests are likely to change as River finds out more about them.
This isn’t to say that River isn’t genre fare mind you (there’s a reason I’m posting this to Odeck) but it understands and respects its subject matter in a way that’s both refreshing and commendable.
This is more or less where we leave River at the end of episode one, reeling in the aftermath of first Stevie’s death and then the disastrous pursuit from the opening. Faced with the question of how much and what to reveal to both his appointed Psychologist Rosa (Georgina Rich), and also his new partner (or “babysitter”) Ira King (Utopia’s Adeel Akhtar) now that he finds himself struggling to cope, having more to cope with, and with years worth of lies by omission nipping at his heels.
A more spoilery recap of Ep2 will be coming soon.
River is currently showing on BBC 1 on Tuesdays (and is 4 episodes in, I’ve been a little slow with this), and is coming to Netflix US on November 18th.