Lewis (2006-present), billed here as Inspector Lewis, is a worthy follow-up series to its predecessor, the late, lamented Inspector Morse (1987-2002). Based on Colin Dexter's novels, the 33 movie-length Morse shows are among the finest crime dramas ever produced. Set in Oxford, the series followed the (usually) murder investigations of colorful Chief Inspector Morse (John Thaw) and his devoted Detective Sergeant "Robbie" Lewis (Kevin Whately). That series ended in November 2000 with Morse's death in the final episode, and star John Thaw himself died of cancer just 15 months later.
You'd think building a new series around Morse's sidekick wouldn't be such a good idea, like trying to fashion a new series around Dr. Watson after Sherlock Holmes retires to his bee farm in Sussex Downs. But the show's writers cleverly address this issue head-on and in interesting ways, avoiding the potential pitfalls while maintaining almost all of Morse's strengths. Like Morse, Lewis consists of movie-length episodes, and yet I was sucked into the series to the point of obsessively watching three or four a week.
This PBS release is problematic. "The Complete" part of the packaging is misleading, as is labeling its contents "The Pilot and Complete 1st and 2nd Series." The good news is that, in fact, the set includes all those shows plus the first three episodes of the third, though not the fourth and final episode of that "season," nor does it include Series Four; that is, four more episodes produced last summer. Further muddying the waters is that the pilot episode is presented letterboxed but is not 16:9 enhanced (though the other ten shows are), some early episodes feature intrusive Masterpiece Mystery introductions and wrap-ups, and at least one shot in one episode appears to be censored.
The new series has Lewis returning to Oxford after spending two years in the British Virgin Islands, training policemen. Now the senior detective, Lewis is assigned his own junior, Detective Sergeant James Hathaway (Laurence Fox, son of actor James), a wiry young Cambridge man who gave up theology and the priesthood to join the force.
But the spectre of Inspector Morse, something of a legend in death, casts a long shadow. Rather ingeniously yet never indulgently, Lewis is constantly reminded of his flawed but fascinating former partner, who drank too much (particularly English ale), loved obscenely difficult crossword puzzles and classical music (Wagner in particular). Lewis finds cryptic messages by Morse in old case files, runs into his ex-lovers, and sometimes ex-cons Morse had collared years before. In "Music to Die For," Morse's innocent actions are even discovered to have unwittingly set into motion events leading to a murder decades later.
But even more significant than Morse's death - and this is where the show's creators really exhibit their ingenuity - Lewis is still coming to terms with an even more profound loss: the death of his wife, Valerie, killed in by a hit-and-run driver never identified, never apprehended. The easy-going, take-life-as-it-comes Lewis seems to have reasonably recovered two years later, but as with Morse, once back in Oxford Lewis is constantly reminded of his wife's meaningless, unresolved death. Cars screeching around a corner startle him, well-meaning colleagues try to console him, an old mattress tossed into a Dumpster reminds him that his connections to her are gradually disappearing - soon there'll be nothing left that was theirs. And, in one episode, a suspect cryptically hints at the identity of the mysterious hit-and-run driver but is himself murdered before he can reveal the driver's name.
The relationship between Lewis and Hathaway is also quite interesting. In some ways it turns the senior-junior relationship upside-down, with working class, middle-aged Lewis, who loathes pretentious academia and silver-spoon types, partnered with cerebral, multi-faceted (yet also stylish) DS Hathaway. And he's not merely a mini-Morse; the writers contrast him with Thaw's character in myriad ways, such as Hathaway's reticence to Morse's theatricality, Morse's occasional recklessness to Hathaway's methodicalness. In the episode "Life Born of Fire," it's suggested Hathaway is either gay or had a homosexual experience as a youth. It's a terrific, sensitive episode featuring a mesmerizing performance by Rachael Stirling (Diana Rigg's look-alike daughter), though somewhat undone by a preposterous climax.
The mysteries themselves are variable; some are excellent, others merely okay. Certainly the shows that play best are those focusing more on the Lewis and Hathaway characters rather than the machinations of the crime-solving, though as police procedurals few shows are this good.
The supporting cast includes comedienne Rebecca Front, very good, as their long-suffering Chief Inspector Innocent, while Clare Holman is also fine as forensic pathologist Dr. Laura Hobson, a role she originated on Inspector Morse.
Video & Audio
The awkwardly packaged set consists of 11 roughly 85-minute episodes on eight discs in five thinpack cases. As stated above, the pilot episode is 1.78:1 letterboxed but not 16:9 enhanced, though all the others are. All of the shows are presented as Masterpiece Mystery shows, complete with its Edward Gorey cartoons, Alan Cumming on-camera introductions, and acknowledgement of corporate sponsors and "viewers like you." A few of the early shows annoyingly cut in with some closing comments (including an advertisement for the very DVD you're watching at that moment) between the fade-out and closing credits, but these are thankfully abandoned gradually as well. All of this is completely unwanted and unnecessary; I found myself fast-forwarding through all that muck.
Except for the first show, the transfers are all quite pleasant and up to contemporary standards, as is the stereo audio, supported by closed-captioning for those who want it. One episode includes a single shot of some nudity in a magazine, and this has been optically blurred-out, an effect I assume is particular to this U.S. release version. There are no Extra Features to speak of.
Lewis is just about as good as Inspector Morse, high praise indeed. Whately is superb, with Lewis's sagging, melancholy features, Geordie accent, and disdain for Oxfordshire's elite weightier than ever, and in Fox's Hathaway he has found a worthy partner. The DVD set is compromised but for the shows themselves definitely worthwhile. Highly recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Tora-san DVD boxed set, is on sale now.