Less than five minutes into the first episode of "Vexed," the cool, doesn't-play-by-the-rules detective Jack Armstrong (Toby Stephens) discovers crucial evidence at a crime scene: a copy of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, a DVD of Bridget Jones' Diary, an empty bottle of wine, and a giant bar of chocolate. The victim, he declares with a knowing smirk, was a "single, lonely, needy, neurotic, vulnerable, insecure, desperate, comfort-eating woman," an assumption his new, uptight, by-the-book partner Kate Bishop (Lucy Punch) turns up her nose at. Minutes later, though, Kate discovers the victim's pet cat, and even Kate has to agree that's pretty indicative of a woman who "blubbered herself to sleep every night."
At moments like these, it's hard to believe "Vexed" is a real television show and not some sort of competition to see if "mismatched cop partners" or "battle of the sexes" is the older, more obnoxious cliché. Armstrong is a horndog who constantly chases skirts instead of suspects, while Bishop worries about the state of her relationship with her horrible, hateful husband (Rory Kinnear). I suppose the United States doesn't have a claim on tired concepts, but it's somehow surprising to see this kind of story being told in a BBC program and not a 20th Century Fox movie starring Eddie Murphy.
Prior to watching the show, the draw for me was Punch, who made an impression in the decent but not overly memorable comedy Bad Teacher and a minor role in Hot Fuzz. She's clearly a talented comedian, but "Vexed" doesn't have anything to offer her. Bishop's big moments include whacking her husband with a rolling pin because she becomes convinced he's cheating (it's just a hilarious misunderstanding!), then tearfully trying to get him to take her back while he bellows all the things he hates about her. Even when she elevates a gag into faintly amusing territory, it feels like it's a waste of her time; one tired but almost-tolerable gag has Kate trying to score a date with a suspect as part of a sting operation while Jack listens in and makes disparaging comments, prompting Kate to flick her microphone.
In comparison, it's not that Stephens isn't putting forth as much effort in playing Jack, it's just that Jack is a much easier role. Jack swaggers around, makes stupid mistakes, becomes distracted, and still ends up okay in the end. Stephens has enough charm to pull it off without the character becoming insufferably obnoxious, but he also probably ends up dumber than the writers intend: Jack allows his gun to be stolen, gets captured, ruins evidence, and generally only lucks out with some key piece of information because if he gets fired, there's no show. The mysteries are also pretty simplistic -- not obvious, but definitely predictable, and attempts to undercut its predictability with slightly meta observation also fall flat.
Although some of its crimes just add up to "forgettable," "Vexed" really nails its own coffin lid shut with a totally unnecessary undercurrent of sexism and stereotyping that leaves the whole enterprise looking ugly. In almost every episode, someone calls Kate a bitch, or Kate calls someone else a bitch (only a woman). In the second episode, Jack contests that women could be assassins because they can't throw, and of course Kate bears this definition out, despite her objections. The show's edginess peaks with the first episode, which features a woman who is remarkable for her interest in football, her love of sex, and disinterest in reading, but this picture of progressiveness is countered by the rest of the episode, about those lonely women (later trumped by the solution to the mystery...which I won't actually reveal).
"Vexed" has simple but effective art that just makes use of a promo photo -- remember when you'd see promo photos for American productions that weren't Photoshopped to death? -- and a caution-tape color scheme. The disc comes in a standard Amaray (no holes punched in it), and an insert promoting Acorn TV and their online community.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, "Vexed" inherits mosts of its flaws from the production style of British television. The image is soft, hounded by ghosting, contrast is on the weak side, and colors are a tad muted. Some posterization and artifacting is also visible from time to time.
Audio is presented in a frills-free Dolby Digital 2.0 track, which rarely gets a workout. Even during the show's more exciting or action-heavy moments (which are not frequent), the track doesn't have much punch to it. For the most part, though, 2.0 is more than enough to cover the two leads yelling at each other. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
A photo gallery is all that's offered here.
A promo for other Acorn releases and trailers for "Vera" and "Case Histories" play before the main menu. Four promos for "Vexed" (one for the whole series and one for each episode) are also included.
In checking IMDb for this review, I learned that Lucy Punch, having secured a job on American TV, left "Vexed" behind, giving way to a second season with a new, beautiful, blonde, uptight partner to clash with Jack's wild-man sensibilities. That's the kind of originality that one can expect from "Vexed"...provided they don't just skip it.
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