In many ways, Murphy's Law: Series One is a typical hard boiled police drama. The ways in which it rises above standard expectations, and even presents the expected turns with surprising skill and subtlety, are what make it a better than average crime drama. Series One introduces us to Tommy Murphy, played with vigor by James Nesbitt, a seasoned Irish policeman working in London . He's nihilistic and bitter, self destructive, probably alcoholic, but a superlatively talented undercover agent. He's pulled off of a well deserved suspension in the first episode to help break up a particularly vicious band of jewel thieves.
Series One is comprised of five ninety minute episodes, each basically self sufficient, with a small number of main characters that are consistent throughout and a couple of deftly handled subplots that flow through the whole narrative. Any one of the episodes can be enjoyed in isolation, but they are more fully enjoyed when viewed in sequence. Throughout the five episodes, Murphy uses his engaging, though also manipulative, personality to insinuate himself into a group normally resistant to outsiders, and thus brings many villains to justice. He infiltrates the aforementioned gang of jewel thieves, a maximum security prison, a high end health club, a mob organization and the seedy underworld of the professional snooker circuit.
In all of his efforts, Murphy is assisted by his boss Annie Murphy (Claudia Harrison) for whom he harbors a not so secret love, and Carter (Del Synott), the by the book rookie, who knows the regulations like his own family, but can't match Murphy's manic, reckless effectiveness, and often resents him for it. Though Murphy is the focus of the series, and is given the majority of the screen time, Annie and Carter are allowed to develop organically and be more than cutouts. They act as effective counterpoints to his damn the rules approach, with Annie's sometimes ruthless drive to close cases and Carter's earnest striving. The subtle interplay between these three, with the occasional appearances of Murphy's estranged wife and his old drinking buddy, now parish priest, provide much of the dramatic fuel of the series.
The viewer identifies with these people because they aren't too perfect, prettified, idealized versions of people. They have problems, often quite serious ones in Murphy's case, sometimes do the wrong thing, make mistakes, lose their temper and get sloppy drunk. Because we empathize with them, and grow to like them despite their flaws, we are genuinely concerned when the murderous mobster is walking down the hallway and may just discover Annie going through his desk, or that Murphy may have to blow his cover to save a man from being shot in the head. At first glance, Murphy does not strike the viewer as particularly sympathetic. He is at times self pitying, drinks too much and can have a violent temper. Nesbitt plays him as a devilish rogue, however, and with such charm that one is forced, almost unwillingly, to like him. His virtues are as grand as his vices, and more than cancel them out.
Overall, the series combines standard police drama plots with vibrant characters and inventive twists to deliver a first rate experience. The BBC has a long history of producing riveting crime dramas, and Murphy's Law is no exception. There is one caveat, however. Of the five episodes in Series One, the pilot is by far the weakest. It is almost unbearably clichéd and dull. At one point a character, clearly a villain, actually uses the phrase "play time's over" non-ironically. While viewing the pilot is necessary to fully understand the back story and character relationships, this reviewer is almost tempted to recommend skipping it and starting with Episode Two: Electric Bill. The four subsequent episodes are top notch, and shed the clunky dialogue and forced plot devices of the pilot. Taken as a whole, Series One is an excellent display of crime drama at its best, but if you choose to wade through the pilot episode, know that there is sweeter fare waiting.
Below are short descriptions of each episode, as provided with the DVD packaging:
Episode 1: Murphy's Law (Pilot)
With Murphy's career on the line, his superiors give him one last chance: infiltrate a gang of diamond thieves whose heists have turned lethal. Murphy earns the trust of Terry, the unhinged leader, and gets caught up in a protection racket, robberies, and drug trafficking. Even worse, he's attracted to Terry's beautiful partner, who has secrets of her own.
Episode 2: Electric Bill
The police finally capture Electric Bill, London's most infamous kidnapper. But they can't find Kate Jennings, his latest victim and the daughter of a wealthy lord. DI Annie Guthrie sends Murphy undercover to Bellview Prison to pull a confession from Bill. When the plan is threatened from within, the lives of both Kate and Murphy hang by a thread.
Episode 3: Kiss and Tell
Someone is seducing and murdering wealthy London businessmen. The victims all belong to an elite fitness club that's a hot spot for unfaithful spouses. Annie tells Murphy to pose as a high-flying banker, join the club, and start dating. Using his considerable charm, he finds scams, cheating husbands, and a string of beautiful suspects.
Episode 4: Manic Munday
Pool hall legend Mickey Munday faces three problems: a handsome young rival, a colorful past, and the Irish terrorist organization that wants him to rig his game - or else. Someone tried to kill him in Spain, so when he comes to London for the championships, Murphy and Annie pose as his bodyguards. The stakes get even higher when Munday's long-lost daughter appears.
Episode 5: Reunion
The murder of a notorious East End gangster puts London on the brink of a bloody street war. Murphy joins a rival gang, enters the glittering world of the city's club scene, and works against the clock to gather evidence and prevent more killings. When tensions reach the boiling point, Annie joins ranks with Murphy on the front lines of the prime suspect's latest venture.
The video is presented in 16:9 widescreen, and generally looks good. The image is sharp and clear, though London's underbelly is often presented with muted colors. Very occasionally lens dirt or other artifacts are visible, but this is only fleeting.
Sound is presented in Dolby digital 2 channel, and does the job, but is nothing spectacular. Dialogue is always clearly audible and is never overwhelmed with background noise. No hiss or other interference is detectable.
The only extra included with Murphy's Law: Series One, aside from a few trailers for other Acorn releases, is a text bio of series star James Nesbitt. While it is interesting, it is quite brief, and seems a bit scanty for as high quality a show as this.
With the exception of the pilot episode, Murphy's Law: Series One is sharp, subtle and hard hitting police drama. It doesn't shrink back from the moral complexities of its heroes or villains, and delivers real laughs along with its thrills. There are genuinely tense moments, pitiful moments, and humorous moments. Though he is at times unpleasant, morose or rebellious, Nesbitt's Tommy Murphy is a man who truly wants to do the right thing and expends his considerable talents to that end, often to the detriment of his personal life. Acorn's presentation of the first series of the show is lacking in extra material, but Murphy's Law is good enough to stand on its own. Recommended.