So I’ve been rather under the weather, which means you get more TV reviews. I managed to blow through all three versions of Agatha Christie’s Marple, as well as the entirety of Midsommer Murders, Murdoch Mysteries, Murder in Suburbia, Rosemary & Thyme, New Tricks, and Inspector Lyndley (the last of which isn’t really very cozy, but I was getting desperate).
Then a friend recommended Inspector Lewis and it was available streaming on Netflix. She told me “It’s set in Oxford and full of classics references and murderous Dons–you’ll love it!” For those who don’t know, I was trained as a classicist (that’s the parlance in that field for ‘learned up’). I’ve read Homer in Greek and Tacitus in Latin and Levi-Strauss in French and in German, I read that Swiss dude whose name I forget who did the lovely and not-too-German German encyclopedia of classics. Fortunately for my television reviewing skills, I’ve also read Aeschylus and Euripides. These things are important when watching snooty cozies, you know.
Other fun facts from my overly fancy education: There was an Athenian upper-class gang named the auto-lekythioi. A lekythos is a bottle used for storing anointing oil, usually olive oil, and auto means self. So yes, there was a Greek gang named the masturbators, or the self-lubers. (I think this group came up in our discussion of the destruction of the Herms, but it might have been during our tour of pottery at a museum. I forget.) This has been your random classics neepery of the day. Ahem.
So, when I plopped myself on the couch to watch this thing, I was immediately struck by the title, “Whom the Gods Destroy.” Aha, I thought to myself, someone’s going to be killed all right, but first they will be hounded to the brink of madness! Excellent!
Being me, I also hoped there would be a sparagmos. Perhaps even an incident of omophagia! Why yes, Greek does have a specific word for the ritualistic tearing people limb from limb and then eating them raw, why do you ask? It’s such a perky, cheerful discipline is philology.
So, this show, Inspector Lewis.
The setup is quite straightforward. An older, experienced detective named Robbie Lewis is paired with a younger, snarkier, prettier sergeant James Hathaway. Lewis, the older detective, is street-smart and wise, from a working class background, and finds the Oxford dons somewhat nuts. Hathaway, the young sergeant, is by turns taciturn and sarcastic, was educated at Cambridge, and was going to be a priest. Hathaway has a rather metrosexual air, while Lewis has the comfortable lived in face and boring wardrobe of a middle-aged guy who knows what he’s doing and doesn’t give a toss about clothes. Both have interesting backstories that are explored as the show goes on.
The episodes of Lewis are longer than the usual American TV drama–each one clocks in at about ninety minutes, or movie length. The character Lewis was the assistant to Chief Inspector Morris on the show of the same name, which I never read or watched, but which is sometimes referenced. In this show, Morris is dead, and Lewis is the lead investigator, and he begins teaching his new assistant, Hathaway, about solving crimes.
This first episode covers the death of a Dean of an Oxford college. As the show continues, it becomes apparent that several middle-aged men all belonged to a club. What club?
Why, the Sons of the Twice Born club (revealed by a deeply tacky ring).
The twice-born being Dionysos. See, back in the day, Zeus knocks up this pretty girl, but that pisses off his wife (gee, why?), and in the ensuing kerfuffle, Zeus kills Semele by his lightening bolts, but saves the baby by sewing him into his thigh, where the baby ends the gestation period and is eventually birthed. Hey, it’s about as sane as Wandering Womb syndrome. Obstetrics has something of a checkered past in classical Greece, sorry to say. Aaaaaaanyway.
There was a crone-looking classicist behind the club (naturally), and some drugs and naughtiness, as one might expect from a Dionysian cult, but not much respect for gender fluidity or the power of what they were dealing with, both of which means that all club members are doomed to come to Sticky Ends.
There were a couple of different club members left after the initial murder, including one guy who turned out to have been a drunk/drugged driver who killed a pedestrian during a wreck and wound up in a wheelchair. Lewis and Hathaway are shown doing their best to help this guy, despite his clear evilness, offering him protection and trying to find out who’s behind the string of murders and why. Each murder is perpetrated in a way so as to cause maximum horror and mental anguish, and when you find out why the murderer committed the crimes, you can kind of see their point.
I won’t spoil the ending, since it’s actually a pretty good show, but I will say that my inner classicist was deeply pleased by the way they arranged the sparagmos and tactfully hinted at the omophagia, without actually ruining their ability to be shown on TV.
It’s a dark episode with a nice twist. Literary references piled on literary references, and some truly pretty countryside (as is traditional in such shows).
The one thing that is quite different between British television and American television is the number of episodes per ‘season’. In British TV, you might have anywhere from three to twenty, depending on budgets and actors’ time, and so on. American seasons (at least on network shows) tend to have twenty one episodes, give or take. Lewis has absolutely lovely production values and each ep is quite long. I have no idea if that’s a factor, but the first season (not including the pilot) is only three episodes long. Episode two is about Lewis and Hathaway protecting a criminal turned author on his book tour and episode three is about a deeply troubled woman’s apparent suicide.
Season two begins with the episode “And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea.” What’s a show about Oxford without an episode about Shelley?
To be honest, this is my favorite episode, although it’s also painfully sad. A gambling-addict and maintenance man for the Bodleian Library is killed. Soon after, so is a promising and well-liked art student named Nell.
The episode twists through the chambers of the Bodleian, forgery, what art means, gambling, and ends in a particularly lovely and poignant way at the statue of Shelley.
Other show highlights include the Quality of Mercy, about a Shakespearean play put on by students (includes discussions of Marx and Hegel!); Allegory of Love, which includes lots of wonderful Inkling geekery, Lewis (C. S. and Carroll) references, allegories of fantasy high and low; the Point of Vanishing, with a deeply moving story of love and what it means to be free, as well as explorations of faith, honor, and atheism.
Sadly, the show also has an unpleasant transphobic episode (Life Born of Fire) which seems to be trying to frown at homophobia, but which didn’t really succeed. I watch these things to relax, so I fast forwarded to see if the villain was as I suspected (yes), but otherwise did not pay much attention to it, and erased it from my mental canon.
Overall, I’ve been noticing some interesting class stuff going on in this show. Hathaway, for instance, has upper-class class markers (appearance, musical taste, education) but is lower class. Lewis is proudly lower class. Many of the villains are upper class, and the lower class villains often have good reasons for the crimes they commit. I’m pondering the cozy genre, because it’s, well, it’s just so weird. But interesting. If there’s interest, I may try to come up with some thoughts about the cozies in general.
There are, so far, six seasons, and another season is planned.