What a difference a season can make. I was underwhelmed watching Murphy's Law - Series 2, the undercover policier starring James Nesbitt as a troubled Irish undercover cop in London. He was terrific but the series was oppressively bleak and stylishly nihilistic, in that yeah-we-get-it-already, over-the-top life-is-shit manner that made you want to take a shower after watching each episode. It was overkill, sometimes literally, with salt in the wound cheap shots dominating over story and characterization.
But Murphy's Law - Series 3 (2005) is an almost revelatory experience. The program may have been influenced by the superb American series The Wire (2002-08). At this point Murphy's Law completely changed its format, with each subsequent series (of six 55-minute episodes in this case) devoted to a single investigation, rather than the self-contained plots of the first two seasons/series. It also resembles the first season of The Wire particularly in that the criminals are extremely intelligent and cautious, and that the backbone of the story is simply obtaining enough evidence with which to charge them. And like The Wire, the revitalized Murphy's Law explores the often-contentious, cross-purposes bureaucracy of law enforcement and its relationships with other government agencies, the moral blurring of criminals and police, corruption at the higher echelons of government, and how this impacts (and endangers) cops of the street, adds to the misery of the poor, and so forth. This is not to say Murphy's Law is ripping off The Wire; it has a very similar approach to its material but also its own interests and singularly British (and Irish) concerns. The last few episodes are particularly strong and are almost unbearably suspenseful and thrilling.
The shows are presented in excellent 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfers with excellent Dolby Digital stereo soundtracks though it's light on supplements.
Undercover cop Tommy Murphy (Nesbitt) poses as an arms dealer and contract killer, and this inadvertently leads him to a much bigger potential prize, the untouchable, extremely cagey crime boss Dave Callard (Mark Womack) and his menacing, psychotic lieutenant, Caz Miller (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds). After checking out Murphy's (fabricated) criminal past, Callard hires Murphy to murder Richard Holloway (Ramon Tikaram), whom Callard says has been sleeping with his wife.
The first episode follows Murphy's attempts to bring Holloway into protective custody to testify against Callard while convincing the crime boss that he's actually bumped Holloway off. (Mild Spoilers): Murphy's investigation gradually uncovers a much larger plot involving heroin smuggling with connections to Sir George Garvey (Gavin & Stacey's Larry Lamb), a nationally-famous hotelier and philanthropist, and Afghani dealer Masud (Kayvan Novak). Meanwhile, Murphy becomes sexually intimate with Holloway's vulnerable, lonely wife, Ellie (Georgia Mackenzie), who has been led into believing that her husband is dead.
Behind-the-scenes, Murphy engages an old partner, veteran cop Paul Allison (Owen Teale, Ballykissangel), as his all-important back up. Also supporting Murphy are neophyte undercover cops Ollington (Shaun Dooley) and Needham (Maggie Lloyd Williams). Leading the team is older Detective Superintendent Rees (Michael Feast, Touching Evil and Brother Sun, Sister Moon).
DSI Rees, in terms of his relationship with the other characters, both above and below him in rank, is particularly fascinating - he's loyal to his team but diplomatic and extremely circumspect - and Feast is excellent.* So too is the unique relationship between the undercover cop, Murphy, and the essential support secretly supplied to him by his partner, Paul. When, for example, in the middle of the investigation Murphy is suddenly obliged to give evidence at the Old Bailey for an earlier case (a screen shielding his identity) and must suddenly cancel a scheduled meeting with Callard, Murphy claims to be at the doctor and, later, attending a funeral. Paul creates a phony doctor's receipt and a funeral program for Murphy to stick in his pocket, specifically for Caz Miller to rifle through and discover later on, and thus support Murphy's story.
Though this series of Murphy's Law episodes is nearly as bleak and cynical as the previous year's shows, everything is so dramatically justified this time out that it's much more engrossing and, ultimately, satisfying. Written by Simon Donald, Allan Cubitt, Jilian Perkins, and Michael Compton (from Colin Bateman's original character), this series is quite ambitious, even questioning Britain's role in Afghanistan, its impact at home, and the country's lapdog-like political relationship with the United States.
Grounding it all is Nesbitt's intense, sardonic but often-witty characterization. By this point in the series Murphy's undercover identities have sublimated his own and any normal existence. Though superficially there are similarities to Dirty Harry's play-by-my-own-rules loose cannon, in fact Murphy is a quintessential police officer: duty-bound with the strategic disadvantage of morally- and legally-tied hands, playing an immoral role in an immoral world, and for whom each assignment extracts its pound of flesh.
He lives to serve, but to what end? A subplot involving his testimony on a previous, six-month undercover job suggests an existential pointlessness to it all. Why does he bother? Who is he becoming? Callard suggests a doppelgänger effect not uncommon in these sorts of thrillers but which is most appropriate here. And Murphy's relationships with Ellie, Paul, Rees and, in the end, even Callard are rich and intriguing. This is really shaping into a fine show.
Video & Audio
On two single-sided, dual-layered discs, all six episodes of Murphy's Law look great, with appropriate episodes preceded by recaps and followed by previews of the next episode. The transfers, in 16:9 enhanced widescreen, are excellent. The whole series runs 352 minutes - just under six hours. The Dolby Stereo audio likewise is up to current standards. Optional SDH English subtitles are helpfully included.
The only supplement is a thin James Nesbitt biography, nothing else.
I almost passed on Murphy's Law - Series 3 and am really glad I stuck with it. Though intense, at times grim and graphic (the cover art warns of "adult language, nudity, and disturbing images") it approaches the greatness of The Wire, with which it is admirably compared, and Highly Recommended.
* In a marvelous bit of writing, near the end it's revealed that Rees is a Laurel & Hardy fan. The final episode is entitled "Hard-Boiled Eggs & Nuts."
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.