There are any number of times when watching a TV murder mystery — or, if you’re watching it on a broadcast network, then it’s pretty much every time — that you might long for a lot less sensationalism and titillation. Less gore. Less “I’ve seen this before in 15 other similarly purple-colored iterations.”
The latest British miniseries to do big numbers over there (averaging roughly 8.95 million viewers each of its three nights, bringing it into Bodyguard territory and qualifying as a huge hit) is the ITV-produced Manhunt, which will premiere here Monday on the Acorn streaming service, which specializes in British and international fare.
Manhunt does seems keenly British in the sense that it tries intentionally hard to focus on the less glamorous and more boring and harder realities of actual detective and police work than is often depicted on television. Part of that might have something (maybe a lot) to do with the fact that Manhunt is based on a real serial-killer case that riveted the country and garnered countless tabloid-style headlines. The treatment it needed was decidedly more granular and low-key, and Manhunt pulls that off admirably.
Based on the memoir of Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton, who was in charge of the investigation that took place between 2004 and 2006, and created for television by writer Ed Whitmore and Sutton, Manhunt presents a murder that could be connected to at least one other (and, by good police work, eventually even more) and all along the way focuses as much on that grunt work as possible, avoiding bloody flashbacks, brutal depictions of any kind or lurid corpse photos, etc.
If that sounds like it drains a good deal of the action out of it, not necessarily. Manhunt bleaches out the titillation and zeroes in on the detective work, which is an honorable diversion from the norm, even if there are some dramatic trade-offs along the way and some shortcomings on the character-development side.
The one fully drawn person here is, not surprisingly, Sutton (played by Martin Clunes of Doc Martin, Vanity Fair, etc.). Though Clunes is better-known for his comedy and for lighter roles where he’s, well, affable, he does a wonderful job here — beyond being very British about it — depicting a career detective of high rank but no “career-defining” cases. Which means he’s gone along and done the best he can with his career until this point, but is also up for the task and he’ll be damned if the higher-ups — some are worried he’s going to blow a case that moves quickly from single murder to serial-killer territory — take it away from him.
If this was an American series, of course, that defiant attitude would be verbose, angry and profanity-filled as some tough New York detective would be protecting his turf. Here, Clunes, as Sutton, confesses a few doubts to a trusted cohort (Katie Lyons) but mostly saves the worry for the table talk he shares with second wife, Louise (Claudie Blakley), who’s a police analyst at a more suburban, lower-level department (whereas Sutton works for the bigger London Metropolitan police, or “the Met,” furthering the pet Brit sensitivity to class structure seen through various lenses). These moments at home showcase Blakley, who does strong work as Louise, an endearing spouse and ear to Clunes’ character, though he’s mostly unreceptive to her ideas (which, based on data analysis, are too modern, apparently, for his shoe-leather approach); he also doesn’t feel her concerns at home, the case making him more distant and distracted.
Three hours is both a plus and a minus for Manhunt. It doesn’t allow enough time to get other characters more than peripherally involved, with Louise the only exception. And in the end, it would have been nice to see more of the toll this case took on their marriage, or why Colin wasn’t more open to her input and ideas. But since Manhunt eschews the traditional gory details of not only a homicide story but an actual full-blown serial-killer case, then astutely focusing on video surveillance, looking for various styles of cars registered in large swaths of the country and coordinating evidence with other departments is probably best left to three rather than eight hours.
But let’s be clear: In Manhunt, there’s something likably precise in the old-school focus on how much boring paperwork, staff-wide effort and luck goes into piecing together a complex case. It’s clear that looking away from the overdone was a wise choice, particularly because the show goes by quickly and has a satisfactory ending.
Manhunt might ultimately be more Brit-specific than something that also got huge viewing numbers like Bodyguard (it’s certainly less pulse-pounding), but it’s also more believable, more rooted in realism and, very importantly, based on an actual crime.
Cast: Martin Clunes, Katie Lyons, Claudie Blakley, Anna Burnett, Stephen Wight, Steve Furst, Celyn Jones
Written by: Ed Whitmore
Directed by: Marc Evans
Based on the book by Colin Sutton
Premieres: Monday (Acorn)