The lede comes first: PBS's new Blu-ray of Inspector Lewis - Series Four (2010) happily has none of the problems plaguing their earlier The Complete Inspector Lewis. That set included cut episodes, intensely annoying corporate sponsor ads and unnecessary "Masterpiece Mystery" introductions and other filler. One show wasn't 16:9 enhanced and another was pointlessly censored. Further, while the packaging listed its contents as "The Pilot and Complete 1st and 2nd Series," it also included the first three (but not the fourth) episodes of the 3rd Series. (The missing episodes were eventually released to DVD in October 2010.)
Now comes Series 4, and on Blu-ray yet. The very good news is that the episodes are complete, running about 92 minutes apiece instead of the shorter, 85-minute PBS broadcast versions. There's none of this public broadcasting muck to contend with and, most importantly, the shows themselves look and sound wonderful, the high-definition photography really sparkling here, so much so that by the end I was very close to planning a vacation to Oxford, the show's setting.
The four feature-length mysteries continue the tradition of Lewis's predecessor, the great Inspector Morse (1987-2000). There is no higher compliment than to state that Lewis is a worthy follow-up.
The series, actually called Lewis onscreen, follows the murder investigations of Chief Inspector "Robbie" Lewis (Kevin Whately), an ordinary, Newcastle upon Tyne-born, Geordie accented widower pushing 60. Living and working in the world of academia, Lewis is unassuming, though barely tolerant of pretentious types, of which there are more than a few in Oxford.
In the original series, Inspector Morse*, Lewis was a Detective Sergeant studying under that show's title character, played by the irreplaceable John Thaw. Thaw's Morse was a cranky, erudite, and anti-social classical music lover, nearly the antithesis of Whately's gentle policeman.
Lewis is quite ingenious. First, the student becomes the teacher and, in a sense, the teacher also becomes the student. Lewis is partnered with Detective Sergeant James Hathaway (Laurence Fox), a Cambridge-educated former theology student who had once studied for the priesthood. In his early thirties, Hathaway resembles a young Morse: enigmatic, intellectual, with a similarly acerbic sense of humor. He's not, thankfully, a clone, but it's a clever set-up nonetheless - almost but not quite a complete reversal of the original series' character's relationships.
Though less so in Series Four than in previous shows, Lewis also carries the weight of Morse's history with imagination and intelligence extremely rare for series television and sequel shows especially. The specter of Morse, who died in the last episode of that series, slowly fades into the ether but is still occasionally felt, and the use of recurring locations, characters, situations, etc., often harkens back to the original show.
But what makes Lewis so utterly compelling is Whately's performance and the well-drawn character he plays. His youth gone, Robbie Lewis grows older, sometimes wiser, sometimes less tolerant, less forgiving, more impatient. It doesn't sound like much to say Whately has drawn a clear, steady line these past 23 years, but he's created an endlessly fascinating, aging and evolving character as real as Thaw's iconic Morse. And, like Thaw's, Whately's is already one of series television's great performances and, Callooh! Callay! as Lewis Carroll (and Horace Rumpole) might say, there'll be more shows to come, at least through 2012.
Fox, son of actor James, is also fine as Hathaway, as are Rebecca Front as their boss, Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent (a worthy successor to James Grout's Chief Superintendent Strange on Morse) and Clare Holman as pathologist Dr. Laura Hobson.
Series Four takes Lewis in new directions, with Hathaway continuing to explore, albeit cryptically, his relationship with the church while trying to quit smoking; and lonely widower Lewis and single spinster Dr. Hobson dance around the obvious idea of dating one another. Lewis also contemplates early retirement. (Whately is now the same age as actor John Thaw was when he died.)
The mysteries are above average; I especially liked "The Mind Has Mountains," about a murder amidst a badly organized clinical drug trial for an experimental anti-depressant.
Video & Audio
Inspector Lewis - Series 4 looks great, despite being in 1080i format, with its four 92-minute episodes presented on two Region-A encoded Blu-ray discs. The photography of these shows is outstanding throughout. Stylistically identical to the original Morse, shot in full-frame Super-16(mm), it's a real pleasure to see these same locations (and the nuances of the actors' performances) in high-definition. The audio 5.1 Surround, is also excellent, and supported by optional SDH English subtitles. There are no Extra Features.
Lewis is a great series. I'd recommend starting with the original Morse shows and working one's way through chronologically, but these most recent Lewises are very fine indeed. Highly Recommended.
*Oddly, its title is a misnomer as well. Those shows always opened with "John Thaw as Chief Inspector Morse" and then the title of the specific episode. The onscreen title was never "Inspector Morse" per se.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Tora-san DVD boxed set, is on sale now.