'C.B. Strike': TV Review

Distinctly unmagical.
6/1/2018

Cinemax's J.K. Rowling adaptation follows a private eye and his novice partner through London's fashionable dysfunction.

After the runaway success of the Harry Potter series, author J.K. Rowling famously published her three Cormoran Strike mystery novels under a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, to see how her genre writing might be received without her authorial imprimatur. (Fairly well, actually.) Given the source material's backstory, it's impossible not to wonder if the TV adaptation of the book series (released as Strike in the U.K., but as C.B. Strike stateside) would have been greenlighted were it not for Rowling's name. The seven-part Cinemax miniseries is certainly handsome and well acted. It's also brutally tedious.

Even by the standards of also-ran programming, there's something drearily familiar about C.B. Strike's titular protagonist: an anti-social, alcoholic private eye with a traumatic past and a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed sidekick. (She's even named Robin.) The details that do stand out about the main character — his rock-star father, his military service, even his amputee status — fail to yield emotional depth. Played by a soulful but occasionally hard-to-understand Tom Burke, Cormoran Strike gets submerged in television's deluge of brilliant rogue detectives. He's about as distinctive as a Minion.

It doesn't help that the show's trio of somewhat lurid whodunits are stubbornly uninvolving. At least the first two take place within the high-fashion glitterati and the back-stabbing literati of London, respectively — settings that the production designers practically eat up. But the cases feel so stretched out and the pacing so vexingly bovine — as if the writers and directors were told to fill a set number of minutes — that the mysteries repel emotional investment. Neither the investigators nor the suspects sustain interest, which makes the final installment, when Cormoran himself is accused of murder, especially uncompelling.

The phrase that recurred in my mind as I watched C.B. Strike was "not enough": not enough plot, not enough characterization, not enough suspense, not enough of its own DNA. But the pang of "not enough" was most keen when it came to the scenes between Burke and his co-star Holliday Grainger, who faultlessly embodies the earnest, thrill-seeking Robin. Saddled with a plainly terrible boyfriend (Kerr Logan), Robin isn't a great character per se — she's too much of Cormoran's Girl Friday for that — but her shifting relationship with her temp boss turned mentor is one of the series' few bright spots, as is the respectfully flirty chemistry between the two leads. Frustratingly, then, it takes too many episodes for them to share substantial screen time with one another.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that the best of the three stories is set in the book world. A novelist goes missing soon after his latest manuscript, a roman à clef, savagely lashes out at his friends and colleagues. Secrets are unearthed, and a web of rivalries and resentments among frenemy writers emerge for Cormoran and Robin to sort through. The body that turns up is fantastically mutilated, but the two-parter is the only installment of the three that gets at the human cost of crime — that doesn't just treat the dead like a box of puzzle pieces.

Cast: Tom Burke, Holliday Grainger, Kerr Logan
Executive producers: J.K. Rowling, Neil Blair, Ruth Kenley-Letts, Elizabeth Kilgarriff
Premieres: Friday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Cinemax)