GRANTCHESTER Review: Love, Faith, And Murder In A Rural English Town

     January 16, 2015

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Grantchester, a co-production with the U.K.’s ITV and PBS’s Masterpiece (similar to Downton Abbey), follows young Reverend Sidney Chambers (James Norton) as he is drawn into a number of nefarious doings in the otherwise sleepy, 1950s town of — you guessed it — Grantchester. The series is based on an ongoing series of books by James Runcie, proving that material for the series will not be hard to come by if it extends past its first, six-episode season.  For fans of crime shows that specialize in not being too gruesome or too taxing, that prospect is a dreamy one.  Hit the jump for why when a crime happens, the Rev Sid is on his bike to the rescue.

 grantchester-season-1-pbs-james-norton-imageFor those familiar with British crime series about murders in sleepy English hamlets, Grantchester will evoke thoughts of series like Inspector Morse, Lewis, and — when it comes to the show’s society aspect — Poirot and Agatha Christie.  But Grantchester distinguishes itself in a number of ways from these other series, without rocking the boat too far away from proven formulas.

Sidney, for a start, is not a typical sleuth, nor a typical vicar.  His shirtless scythe-wielding aside (hallelujah amen), Sidney loves jazz and whiskey (not sherry — apparently the vicar drink of choice), and fought in WWII with the Scots Guard.  But in the way Norton plays him, this improbable collection of traits feels natural (Norton, it should be noted, has also done a complete turnaround from his murderous psychopath character from Happy Valley; from hated to beloved).  Where Grantchester really stands out — and should make viewers sit up and take notice — is when Sidney’s emotional connections to the crimes get the better of him, seeping into his life in sometimes bizarre ways.

Sidney’s position as a man of God also earns him the trust of those around him, giving him intimate access to people who might not otherwise speak to the police.  In the premiere episode, a confession leads Sidney to consult a gruff, overworked detective — Geordie Keating (Robson Green) — on reversing a man’s cause of death from suicide to murder.  It doesn’t take long, though, for this odd couple to become friendly enough to talk conspiracy theories down at the local pub, with Sidney even showing up at Geordie’s house at one point to excitedly share with him his latest theory or evidence of the crime.  The two men — one a middle aged, married atheist, the other a young bachelor and man of the cloth — form an easy alliance, and settle into friendship quickly.  Then again, as is proved over and over again in the series, who can resist Sidney’s charms?

grantchester-season-1-pbs-james-norton-tessa-peake-jones-imageBut the Reverend is not altogether carefree.  He’s in love with an old friend and society girl, Amanda Kendall (Morven Christie), who loves him back (the two actors have a natural rapport), but who also must acquiesce to her father’s arranged marriage. Sidney, knowing they cannot be together, holds back his feelings. He drinks, and wonders if he has a problem, and viewers see the emotional and physical scars from the war.  He admits his loneliness, but his life is also full in many other ways (like him attracting the affections of a certain German widow).  And while the show doesn’t go into any deep exploration of Sidney’s faith, each episode ends with an excerpt from one of his sermons.  That device could seem tired, but it actually just puts a fine point on the show’s depiction of faith, and Sidney’s adherence to it, as a positive thing.

Though there are some overarching narratives that flow throughout Grantchester‘s first season, the show mostly sticks to the murder-a-week plot, which stretches some rules of plausibility, as these kind of murderous hamlet series often do.  But the series is so beautifully shot and populated, both in its attention to period detail as well as the actors themselves, that it equals out to a very pleasant, occasionally very engaging escape.  If it weren’t for all of those pesky murders, there would be no reason to ever want to leave Grantchester‘s cozy embrace.

Grantchester premieres Sunday, January 18th at 10 p.m. ET on PBS

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