TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. When the three-part crime series "Manhunt" aired in the U.K. in January, 1 person in 7 watched it. Based on a true story, the show stars Martin Clunes as a London police detective who leads a team tracking down a serial killer. Our critic-at-large John Powers has seen "Manhunt," which begins streaming today on Acorn TV, and says it's very different from nearly all of today's TV crime shows.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It has become the nature of television to ramp up everything, even things that don't need it, like murder. We've grown so accustomed to seeing hot-button crimes and high-powered cops that it feels almost radical when a crime show goes in the other direction and plays it straight. Such a show is "Manhunt," a new three-part series on the popular Anglophile streaming service Acorn TV. Based on the true story of a serial killer working in and around Twickenham in southwest London, the show became a smash hit when it aired in the U.K. a couple of months ago. It takes a murder that became a tabloid spectacle and transforms it into a deft primer on the unspectacular reality of police work.
The story begins in 2004 when a man walking by Twickenham Green spots Amelie Delagrange, a 22-year-old French student who's been attacked. When she dies, Scotland Yard assigns the murder case to Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton, a low-key, tenacious man played by Martin Clunes - best known as the star of Doc Martin - whose face you'll recognize if you've ever turned on PBS during a pledge drive. It's a big case that becomes even bigger when both the press and the cops start noticing similarities between Amelie's murder and the earlier unsolved murder of another young blonde woman. But there are no witnesses or smoking guns. And so along with his sidekick, Detective Sergeant Jo Brunt - played by Katie Lyons - Sutton and his team set about the laborious work of interviewing neighbors and almost literally beating the bushes to to find physical evidence. Here, Sutton addresses his team after divers recover some of Amelie's possessions in the nearby river Thames, clues that give some idea of the killer's movements.
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MARTIN CLUNES: (As DCI Colin Sutton) We've had luck with the river. Father Thames gave up her house keys, her purse and her CD player.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Well, that's not luck, gov. That's sticking to your guns.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah, but we still haven't found her phone or bag.
CLUNES: (As DCI Colin Sutton) The search is ongoing. So we know that she was attacked around 10 o'clock on Twickenham Green. We know her phone went offline at 10:23 in Walton when it was dumped in the river. So we know he's in a vehicle. We know he went from the Green to Walton, and we know when.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) But we don't know his route.
CLUNES: (As DCI Colin Sutton) No, but there's only a certain number of ways you can make that journey in 20 minutes. And we intend to find out which one he took.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) How?
CLUNES: (As DCI Colin Sutton) CCTV.
POWERS: Examining that footage is an even vaster task than it may sound. For in London, CCTV cameras are like Starbucks in American cities - completely inescapable. Now before this show, I'd never even heard of these killings. But over there, the case was so notorious that pretty much everybody already knew the name of the thug who committed them. And so "Manhunt" becomes less a whodunit than a howcatchem (ph). It unfolds in the same patient, stylistically unflashy way as the Oscar-winning film "Spotlight" in which a group of Boston Globe reporters crack open that city's Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal.
The action is anchored by Sutton who is pointedly not extraordinary. Although he possesses a hint of charisma, he doesn't bristle with genius like Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock, doesn't wax metaphysical like Matthew McConaughey in "True Detective," doesn't hit the bottle like Helen Mirren in "Prime Suspect," though he does enjoy a glass of wine with his wife Louise, nicely played by Claudie Blakley, who works for the police in Surrey and thinks her husband doesn't take her career seriously. With his squinty eyes and sardonic mouth, Clunes is ideal for characters who are more awkward than suave.
And as Sutton, he gives a wonderfully modulated portrait of a good, solid copper whose stubborn doggedness makes him an annoying boss and a frustrating husband. But Sutton's also the kind of honorable chap who will go to France to apologize to Amelie's parents for Scotland Yard's failure to nab the serial killer before he murdered their daughter. Every crime show presents a vision of the world, often these days a dark one. "Manhunt" is one of the rare dramas that deliberately celebrates collective action over individual brilliance. It shows how through hard, incremental, often tedious work, a team of investigators are able to crack a tricky case in the world we actually live in, you know, the one in which no CSI lab in Las Vegas can miraculously solve every crime - not that things are utopian. Sutton's underlings groan at the work he demands.
There's a wiseacre who second-guesses his decisions. And the impatient Sutton himself tosses fire on the rivalry between the London police and their counterpart in Surrey, both of which want to control the investigation. Wise to the politics of police bureaucracy, Louise warns him that if he doesn't catch the serial killer, the failure will be an albatross around his neck. Yet despite this, "Manhunt" is reassuring to watch and not only because Sutton and company do catch the killer who, I'm happy to say, isn't romanticized or made somehow colorful. The show champions an idea of the social contract that has fallen out of fashion. It suggests that even though monstrous things do happen, if ordinary, flawed people pull together, common decency can still prevail.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed the crime series "Manhunt," which is now streaming on Acorn TV. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be The New York Times deputy counsel David McCraw. We'll talk about issues he's faced during the Trump presidency when he says the war over press freedom is about the very nature of truth. As the newsroom lawyer, he's dealt with the publication of WikiLeaks documents and sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, lawsuits, kidnappings, personal threats against reporters and more. He has a new memoir. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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