single-handed - set 1
Acorn Media // Unrated // $49.99 // February 1, 2011
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted January 25, 2011
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single-handed (2007-present) is an Irish crime drama starring Owen McDonnell as a second-generation policeman, known there as the Garda Síochána, a tainted organization once populated by Hank Quinlan types (Orson Welles's character in Touch of Evil) famous for beating confessions out of suspects and other forms of corruption. It shares many of the same qualities as the recently reviewed Wallander: both are set in depressingly remote, lonely and mostly rural communities near the sea, and in both series the main character has trouble coming to terms with his estranged and ailing father, a man he both respects and despises. single-handed (onscreen it's without caps) isn't quite as good, and McDonnell is less charismatic than Wallander's Kenneth Branagh, but gradually the series won me over.

single-handed - set 1 consists of the program's first three feature-length mysteries, made a year apart during 2007-2009. Apparently in Ireland and/or Britain each story aired as two roughly 45-minute episodes, but they're presented here as three 92-minute "features" with no obvious break in the middle. Three more single-handed mysteries aired in late 2010; presumably Acorn will be releasing those later in 2011. The shows are in 16:9 enhanced widescreen and include minor text supplements.

The first episode, "Natural Justice" (though entitled "Home" when it first aired on Ireland's RTÉ network), struck me as the least interesting of the three, though it establishes characters embellished more successfully later on. Garda Sgt. Jack Driscoll (the same name as the hero, played by Bruce Cabot, in the original King Kong) returns to his home town of Connemara to assume his father's old post. But there's no love lost between Jack and his father, newly-retired Sgt. Gerry Driscoll (Ian McElhinney), admired by some, feared by others.

In the first story, Jack investigates the possible murder of a young Balkan woman, who died of asphyxiation in a broken-down trailer home out in the middle of nowhere. Only idealistic Jack wants to get to the truth; he gets no help at all from cynical, lazy fellow Garda Finbarr Colvin (David Herlihy), nor his father or practically anyone else in the community, who regard the victim as a disposable, easily forgotten "little foreign tart." (Spoilers) Jack's investigation uncovers several dark secrets about the community stretching back decades - including, eerily, a mass grave of secretly aborted/abandoned babies, whose final resting places are marked by moss-covered stones deep in the forest. More urgently, Jack's findings implicate his father in various illegal cover-ups, and they even impact Jack's relationship with his new girlfriend.

This first show is okay but so emphatically grim with a gimmicky twist near the end that strains credibility, as if to counter its basic simplicity: idealistic young police officer vs. cynical, expediency-over-justice elders.

Much better is "The Stolen Child," about Jack's investigation of a missing toddler already given up for dead, whose dysfunctional mother (Charlene McKenna) is the bane of the community, and whose overly-protected, drug-addicted husband - the chief suspect in the apparent abduction - is seemingly shielded by wealthy parents.

This episode is better written with some genuinely surprising moments, playing on assumptions we as a society have toward social outcasts, and it does a fine job exploring the responsibilities of parents to their children, young and old, and adult children to their parents. In this case the script draws parallels to Jack's father and his troubles, being grilled at a public inquiry patterned after the real-life Morris Tribunal, which identified widespread Garda corruption. In another subplot, Jack's new girlfriend, the local doctor (Doc Martin's Caroline Catz), is bound by confidentially issues from disclosing the parents' drug problems to her lover.

"The Drowning Man" is also fine, with Jack receiving a late-night tip from an anonymous caller that a teenage boy is drowning at sea. Jack arrives too late to save the lad, but discovers that a former lover and ex-Garda herself, Maura (Marcella Plunkett), is staying at a nearby cottage with her new boyfriend, Michael Casey (Pádraic Delaney). However, Jack learns Maura and Casey are in fact working an undercover anti-drug smuggling operation and may have allowed the boy to drown to protect their cover.

As usual for this type of show, the acting is fine across the board, particularly Michael McElhatton in "The Drowning Man" as the Chief Superintendent in charge of the investigation, a nicely underplayed performance; David Herlihy, who gradually creates a fully-dimensional, complex character; McElhinney, who strikes just the right balance of charm and menace; and Ruth McCabe as Jack's emotionally conflicted mother. All three shows were written by Barry Simner, co-creator of The Vice (1999-2003)

Video & Audio

All three single-handed dramas are presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen. The transfers are good, up to contemporary television standards. The three "episodes" are presented over three single-sided, dual-layered discs, with a total running time of about 278 minutes. The Dolby Stereo audio likewise is up to current standards. Optional English subtitles are helpfully included.

Extra Features.

The only supplements come in the form of text extras, one a Q&A with producer Clare Alan that's a real head-scratcher, playing up Irish clichés the series manages to avoid: "Did anybody find a four-leaf clover?" "How many plates of Irish stew [were served]?" etc.

Parting Thoughts

single-handed - set 1 is another overly expensive ($49.99 for just three shows) but worthwhile drama with much to Recommend it.

Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.

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