Jace Lacob explores the enduring charms of Masterpiece Mystery’s Oxford-set crime drama Inspector Lewis, which returns to PBS for a fifth season on Sunday.
In a television landscape populated by countless iterations of CSI and its ilk—crime dramas where the emphasis is on forensics as crime-solving technology rather than in old school policing—Masterpiece Mystery’s delightful Inspector Lewis may feel like an odd man out. But in the case of Lewis, which returns to PBS on Sunday for a fifth season (or sixth, if you’re going by the U.K.’s numbering system), that’s a good thing indeed.
The show, based on characters created by Colin Dexter, is now itself a long-running spinoff of the long-running mystery drama Inspector Morse, which featured John Thaw as the titular detective—wary of authority and enamored of opera, real English beer, and his Jaguar—who was ceremoniously killed off in 2000. (Thaw himself, who played Morse between 1987 and 2000, died in real life in 2002.) And last Sunday saw the American broadcast of the pilot episode of a new spinoff, Endeavour, which stars Shaun Evans as a young version of Morse, an Oxford dropout who returns to the spired city in 1965 as an inexperienced police constable, where he runs afoul of his commanders in pursuit of the killer of a 15-year-old local girl. (Endeavour has been recommissioned by ITV for four feature-length episodes, but no decision has yet been made by WGBH’s Masterpiece Mystery about its future Stateside.)
Morse’s partner from the original series, Kevin Whately’s Robbie Lewis, was promoted to Detective Inspector and his own show in 2006. Like its predecessor, Lewis revolves around police investigators attempting to solve murders in Oxford, where town and gown sit uncomfortably side by side. In Lewis, the gruff Robbie Lewis—widowed after a hit-and-run driver killed his wife—is joined by the reserved, erudite Detective Sergeant James Hathaway (Laurence Fox), a Cambridge-educated copper who dropped out of the seminary to pursue police work.
Rather than follow the conventions of the chalk-and-cheese pair of cops who are constantly rubbing each other the wrong way, Lewis and Hathaway have settled into a comfortable amiability. Lewis’s existence—microwaved dinners eaten standing up, an ongoing simmering flirtation with forensic pathologist Dr. Laura Hobson (Clare Holman)—underscores a haunting loneliness, an unwilling return to bachelorhood in the face of loss.
In many respects, Hathaway is more similar to Morse than to Lewis: he’s knowledgable about the finer things in life—poetry, philosophy, mythology—and the mysteries of religion. In Oxford, where the suspects are often university students or dons, it pays to have a partner who knows a thing or two about Nietzsche or Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. (Yet Hathaway is shifty and awkward around women, an issue that Morse, who frequently engaged in some rather spectacularly inappropriate flirtations with female suspects and witnesses, never had.)
But it’s the Lewis Carroll expertise that plays a role in this Sunday’s episode, “The Soul of Genius,” which revolves around a series of murders related to Carroll’s monolithic nonsense poem, which itself is about the quest to find something inconceivable and unknowable. In Carroll’s poem, the seekers fade away into nothingness once they capture their quarry; in a show that’s essentially a police procedural about the apprehension of murderers, that’s a weighty existential statement about Lewis and Hathaway’s own purpose. The Snark, within both Carroll’s narrative and that of Lewis, becomes itself an emblem of obsession, with multiple characters attempting to find hidden meaning in the cryptic clues embedded within the text.
But, as Robbie Lewis knows too well, not every riddle, or every mystery, has a neat solution. In investigating the death of an Oxford professor fixated on Carroll’s book-length poem, Lewis crosses paths with an obsessive amateur sleuth, played by the great Celia Imrie. She is searching for meaning in her son’s death and is caught up in the larger mystery surrounding The Snark; within Lewis, she encounters a simpatico soul, also reeling from grief. While the mystery surrounding the death of Lewis’s wife isn’t an inciting incident for the series, there is a sense that it is equally as unsolvable as the riddle within The Hunting of the Snark. Not everything gets wrapped up with a pretty bow; some mysteries are unsolvable, some victims inconsolable.
It’s here that Lewis truly soars. Not content to be a twee tea cozy mystery, the series veers into the metaphysical and the truly mysterious, giving the audience a pair of realistically flawed detectives in Lewis and Hathaway doing the best they can with their own imperfect lives as they set out to catch evildoers and reestablish peace in a city of knowledge, of privilege, and at times of indifferent arrogance.
There is a strong sense throughout that they are outsiders in the city of dreaming spires, a sense that’s reinforced within both Morse and Endeavour, which depicts young Endeavour Morse’s first murder case in Oxford. Assumptions are made about characters’ intelligence and knowledge base, suspects feint and parry, but usually Morse, Lewis, and Hathaway get their man (or, indeed, woman) in the end. The narrative strands linked by the three series are further serviced by a gorgeous score by Barrington Pheloung, who composed music for all three entries in what can be loosely deemed an Oxford crime trilogy.
In a recent interview, Fox indicated that the upcoming seventh series of Lewis (sixth if you’re in the U.S.) could very well be their last because he and Whately didn’t want the show to begin to feel “samey.” Which is a shame if it ends up being true, because inasmuch as viewers may crave CSI, NCIS, and their brethren, television needs more subtle and engaging shows like this one, which blends together intoxicating mysteries with a deep and abiding appreciation for literature, music, and art. In the end, Lewis, it seems, is just as unique as Carroll’s mythical snark.