The TV crime format is a reliable one which writers return to time and time again. When thoughtfully created, they can, despite their often implausible nature create some of the most wonderful drama: one only needs to view Luther or Happy Valley to see the capabilities of the genre. Too often however, they lazily resort to cliché or titillation. There is a sheer plethora of crime drama currently on both BBC and ITV and thus far, it is only writer Abi Morgan’s latest effort, River, which has impressed me. From Darkness was, despite the best efforts of Anne Marie Duff, less than engaging whilst I tend to intentionally and stubbornly avoid anything screened by ITV.
River’s appeal stems from the fact that the drama featured is not the crime itself but rather the mental fragility of John River (Stellan Skarsgard). River frequently witnesses what he terms ‘manifests’, hallucinations of the dead, be that of his murdered partner or a young girl whose disappearance he is investigating. River is entirely aware that these manifests are not real: under orders to visit a psychologist due to the trauma of his partner’s death he informs the psychologist that these visions are not ghosts, he does not believe in ghosts, and yet he cannot explain their appearance.
The drama is sublimely imbued with pure unsettling unease without ever veering into melodrama. Each time River sees one of the deceased, Skarsgard’s subtlety prevails and I found myself fearing for the moment that his colleagues realise the true extent of his instability. It will be interesting to see how plot driven the rest of the series will be, particularly given that the subplot of the first episode, featuring the attempts at fulfilling a promise to a grieving mother are largely inconsequential.
Tonally owing a debt to both supernatural and horror films, the first episode of River was entirely convincing and thoroughly engaging.