There are so many damaged, traumatised and generally very fed-up detectives on TV these days, they should have their own channel. Troubled Cop Gold, perhaps?

But Stellan Skarsgård’s DI John River is a whole new level of miserable. Brooding, taciturn (‘Do you talk to anyone?’ asked his sergeant. ‘Not if I can help it,’ growled River) and Swedish, he tramps about London in a fog of gloom like a one-man Scandi drama. When he does speak – in a voice like a low rumble of distant thunder – it’s to say things like: ‘Love feels like food poisoning.’ He makes Wallander look like Geoffrey from Rainbow.

To be fair, he’s got an awful lot to be depressed about. As we discovered last week, his partner – and only friend – Stevie (woman-of-the-moment Nicola Walker) is dead, but that doesn’t stop him conflabbing with her. And she’s not the only one: while he barely says a word to the living, River is positively chatty with a whole host of corpses, including a petty criminal he chased to his death and – a curveball, this one – the Victorian serial killer Thomas Cream, aka the Lambeth Poisoner (Eddie Marsan). It’s like The Sixth Sense crossed with a particularly bleak re-make of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased).

River is the first time Abi Morgan – the brilliant writer behind Sex Traffic, Shame and The Hour, among others – has turned her hand to a police procedural. At times, she feels hobbled by the genre: episode one’s crime-of-the-week, solved via a passage from Romeo and Juliet, was pure hokum. This week, though, Morgan wisely focused on the central mystery of Stevies’ death, and probed further into River’s damaged psyche, revealing a history of mental illness and desperate loneliness a world away from the off-the-peg cops-with-issues hooey of Luther and co. Skarsgård, meanwhile, is a hypnotic presence, grief etched on every line of his tormented face, which this week acquired a bruise as black as his mood after he took a beating outside a pub.

It’s hysterically overwrought, to be honest, but grimly compelling all the same. And you have to love anything that can be this unremittingly desolate, then finish with a musical number from The Nolans.

TV extra:


American Horror Story: Hotel

The fifth season of the lurid horror anthology opened with a pair of backpackers checking into Kathy Bates’ LA hotel. Really, you shouldn’t need TripAdvisor to tell you that stays in establishments run by people called Bates don’t end well: hence the blood-soaked sheets, creepy twins and marauding zombies. And it didn’t even have wi-fi!

Quite what the likes of Bates, Angela Bassett, Chloë Sevigny and even Lady Gaga are doing in this infantile nonsense is a mystery. I suspect they think it’s hilariously camp; actually, it’s just hilariously bad.


Keith Lemon’s Back T’Future Tribute

Like a low-rent Vic and Bob, Keith Lemon’s humour swings between deliriously daft and just plain annoying. You can learn everything you need to know about this tribute to his favourite film – shown on the very date Marty McFly lands in the future in BTTF2 – from the fact it featured Gino D’Acampo as Doc Brown. Sporadically funny, it was let down by too many jokes about our host’s bodily functions. And Paddy McGuinness, which amounts to the same thing. ‘I can’t believe ITV said yes to this,’ said Lemon at one point. Well quite.

Published in Waitrose Weekend, October 22, 2015

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