There are few new concepts in series television, as any avid viewer will tell you. For every Lost, there are seemingly a million Bill Engvall Shows, so the odds of finding something really unique can be literally astronomical. Take my word for it: City of Vice is nothing if not unique, a fascinating blend of fact and fiction with a distinctive visual style and the inimitable presence of the Evil Emperor Palpatine himself, Ian McDiarmid, playing "Tom Jones" novelist Henry Fielding, who just happened to found what many people consider London's first police force.
This Season One 2 DVD set features the first five episodes of the series, which concentrates on the seedier side of Georgian London circa 1753. The series utilizes John Rocque's famous map of London to establish the various locales, with the camera sweeping over the map to the proper location, then seemingly "entering" the map, which becomes 3D, which then ultimately morphs into the actual filmed location. It's a very cool interstitial device that immediately gives City of Vice a very distinctive look. While the actual filmed locations are minimal, almost theatrically so at times (I half expected to see proscenium curtains on a couple of barely dressed sets), it all works somehow, and the recreation of the era feels remarkably "right." Add to that a very proper and at time amusing use of language, and the 1750s come to life so vividly one almost expects to smell the infamous stench which inundated England's biggest metropolis in those years.
Novelist Fielding and his blind brother John (a kind of spooky Iain Glen) were indeed Magistrates of Westminster and were indeed instrumental in forming what many historians view as the first nascent steps toward a real police force, known in Fielding's day as the Bow Street Runners, after the street where Fielding lived and held court. City of Vice takes these basic facts, plus some actual case histories culled from ancient Old Bailey records, and weaves them into a fascinating portrait of a city on the edge of chaos. In fact, it doesn't take a genius to note the similarities to our own time in Diarmid's voiceover which begins each episode lamenting the clash of a wealthy urban class with a destitute rural one which was moving to the city in droves.
The five episodes may not be mysteries in the traditional sense, but that's actually part of the fun of the series. This "police procedural" is so exceptional simply because it takes place in a time before actual procedures had been developed. Therefore the viewer is taken on a journey of some of the first policemen attempting to devise methods to solve crimes. This can lead to some moments that are simultaneously shocking and uncomfortably hilarious, as in the episode where Fielding and his crew are examining the body of a knifed and mutilated prostitute, only to be suddenly surprised to discover she's "not quite dead yet." The episodes do a palpable job of portraying an era that one can only summarize as grimy, both literally and figuratively. The Fielding brothers and their small arsenal of Runners make their way in a world filled with child prostitution, secret homosexual meeting places, gangs of thieving Irish, and outright thuggery on the streets. One of the episodes has some fun when its nemesis turns out to be ironically named Tom Jones.
McDiarmid has a field day (no pun intended) with this portrayal. Fielding is no goody-two-shoes, and is seen conniving and outright breaking the law throughout the series. Plagued by gout physically and a scandalous marriage to his former maid societally, Diarmid's Fielding is a study in duplicity and pragmatism. Glen's John Fielding, on the other hand, tends to be the moral compass of the group, keeping everyone on track and making sure that nothing too egregious happens. In a sort of nod to superheroes, John is depicted as having the aural skill to be able to identify over 3000 criminals simply by the sounds they make.
City of Vice did reasonably well in its initial airing on Britain's Channel 4. One hopes that once it begins airing on this side of the pond, its success and renown will spread, leading to perhaps an enhanced budget for hoped for succeeding seasons. One way or the other, it's off to a great start here, and proves that if you look long and hard enough, you can still find something unusual and thought-provoking on television.
The enhanced 1.78:1 image is for the most part quite excellent, though there's an intentionally pallid palette and a lot of very dark scenes with virtually no contrast. I noticed very occasional aliasing on typical items like window grates in some episodes.
The standard stereo soundtrack is pretty typical television fare, with little real separation to speak of. Fidelity is excellent, and Diarmid's incredibly lugubrious voice comes through loud and clear. No subtitles are available.
A by-the-numbers Making Of featurette is the only extra offered.
City of Vice has the potential to be a true blockbuster--unique, visceral, and expertly weaving fact and fiction into a fascinating glimpse at the dawn of modern detective and policing methods. This first season shows the series finding its way, but I for one hope it is renewed with a more generous budget that will allow it to fully flower, for it has all the makings of a television classic. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet