River (TV 2015) Created by Abi Morgan
Netflix (6 episodes, approx. one hour each)
It’s a show you probably haven’t seen and probably haven’t even heard anyone talking about, which is understandable. With all of the TV shows to choose from out there, this Netflix original (borrowed from BBC One) could easily slip past you. But it shouldn’t.
John River (Stellan Skarsgård, right) is a London police detective driving around London talking to his partner DS “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker, left). They banter back and forth, making it clear that they have a good working relationship including poking fun at each other. Soon we see Stevie walking away from the camera to reveal the back of her head blown off. We now know something that River has known all along: Stevie’s dead and has been talking to her former partner. And River’s trying to find her killer.
That’s not much of a spoiler since it happens in the show’s first few minutes. My guess is that a significant portion of the audience may stop watching at this point, thinking, “Okay, it’s just another rip-off of The Sixth Sense.” That would be a huge mistake.
River sees other dead people as well. I won’t tell you who they are or in what circumstances they appear, but we’re left to determine just what’s going on: is it supernatural or mental? Or both? Each encounter provides River with information, some wanted, some unwanted, some helpful in solving the mystery of who killed his partner, some not.
What makes River so compelling is the acting. Stellan Skarsgård is one of those actors you’ve probably seen even if you won’t watch a lot of foreign films. (He had cameos in The Avengers and Thor.) He seems to frequently play a policeman or a detective; he’s got that cold, distant Swedish visage going on, which works well here. He’s required to go through a whole spectrum of emotion, although he’s mostly reserved. Skarsgård is one of those actors you can watch and just tell he’s thinking, not just acting, in character.
The supporting cast is excellent as well, with Walker as Stevie, who may be the most complex ghost you’re likely to run across in movies or TV. Lesley Manville is superb as River’s boss, DCI Chrissie Read, who is being pressured to make sure River can do his job without going mental. Adeel Akhtar is excellent as River’s new partner DS Ira King, who’s not quite sure what to make of his new partner seemingly talking to himself from time to time. Yet perhaps the most effective – and disturbing – roles comes in the form of Thomas Neill Cream (Eddie Marsan, above), a 19th-century serial killer who frequently appears to taunt River.
Yet the concept would be nothing without good writing and writer/creator Abi Morgan has absolutely nailed it. Her writing is smart, devoid of cliché, and paced in a way that seems organic and compelling. The writing, acting, and direction make River the perfect binge-watching experience. Now I want to watch it all over again.
No one is talking about this show. Let’s change that.
(Many thanks to my friend Dana for recommending it.)
Photos: The Telegraph, The Guardian, Nordic Noir TV, Radio Times