Here I am again, reviewing yet another show about yet another potentially dangerous and damaged policeman. It’s not that I have a thing for these shows – they’re just everywhere right now. Some manage to hit the sweet spot, and others, well…
River is one of those ‘others’. Never quite taking off, River is a slumbering beast working in the crime genre. The set up is simple; DCI John River (Stellan Skarsgård) witnesses the death of his colleague Jackie “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker) and vows to find the people responsible – but this isn’t the standard hard-nosed-cop-gets-revenge deal. River is an antisocial and troubled individual. Haunted by visions and voices of the dead, he stumbles through the murder investigation – his actions at points threatening to upend the whole police department.
He’s unsure and unsettled but not chaotic – the mainstay of his reactions are tediously cold, which makes this difficult television to watch. He feels mechanical, his thought processes are largely obscured to the viewer (despite the viewer having insight into his visions, somehow), and his actions can often be spontaneous and unclear. Had it been presented the right way, River could have been the next Dexter minus the terrible final season – but unfortunately it’s another standard BBC drama, warts and all.
Following Stevie’s death, DCI River is forced to attend sessions with the departments psychologist (Georgina Rich); a young attractive brunette who shows clear interest in the inner workings of the older detective. His reaction to therapy is the commonplace and belligerent; ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here.’ But his standoffish attitude slips with further sessions. We learn that he is haunted by visions and voices of the dead. Outside of the doctors quarters he continues to investigate Stevie’s death – approaching her family members for further clues.
Of course, no one tells the truth. It doesn’t help that Stevie’s family has a history – her brother having been on the wrong side of the big blue line. It’s immediately clear that all is not as it seems. In an act of compassion the producers introduce a new cop; Ira King (Adeel Akhtar), a caring and compassionate father. Partnered up with River, King acts as a ballast for the viewer. Here is an every-man, a gentle soul, someone to keep you grounded when DCI River starts muttering to himself.
The show struggles to achieve the right tone. Interactions between King and River can be lightly comedic, but these are often suffocated by River’s inability to get the joke. This extends to River’s heartwarming interactions with his visions of Stevie – yet the situation is far from heartwarming; a policeman interacting with his visions of a dead woman he was clearly close to. These moments are conflicting – are we meant to revel in their happiness, or feel pity?
The show is often overly dramatic when it need not be, and lacking in drama when it could do with some tense tunes tucked beneath the events unfolding on screen. There is one particular scene late in the series where everything is unravelled, and it’s treated like any other interaction with a witness – two men sitting in armchairs, the sounds of their voices filling the living room.
This leads me neatly to my final complaint – the plot is laughably incoherent in the final episodes. It makes sense, at least there’s that, but it’s terribly unbalanced. Connections are formed as the series progresses, and as we near the series conclusion DCI River begins to solidify his understanding of Stevie’s final movements. Then the scene detailed above occurs, but it comes out of nowhere. A family member opens up without any coercion, professes guilt, and that’s that. The road straightens out significantly, and then we’re treated to an overly dramatic finale.