Were I to make a single, sweeping criticism of contemporary television, it would be that it often doesn’t trust its audience. It doesn’t trust us to juggle more than a couple key plot points at any given time; it doesn’t trust us to clock individual characters’ motivations without having them explicitly spelled out for us; it doesn’t trust us to put even the simplest narrative together unless its pieces fit neatly into a conventional four-act structure.
It doesn’t, in short, trust us to watch.
Of course, as someone who can be as guilty as anyone of staring at my phone while “watching” TV, I not only understand this impulse, but appreciate it. My time on this earth is limited, after all, and it’s not like Twitter will scroll itself! As a critic, though—that is, as someone whose admiration for television, as an art form, has risen to the level of professional—I find this trend deeply distressing. Barring the continued existence of the MCU, there is arguably nothing else in the world that can do what TV does. In trusting its audience as little as it increasingly does to keep up with any complex, serialized visual narrative, television (as an art form!) impoverishes itself.
Not every show does this, of course—and I mean, sure, it goes without saying that there are worse categorical offenders (anything on American primetime) than others (the plurality of prestige dramas). But for every Reservation Dogs, Bosch, or The Expanse, you’ve got three times the number of CSIs, New Amsterdams and Lucifers. Honestly, it’s tiresome.
Which is all a labyrinthine way for me to say that I was desperately relieved to discover that Dalgliesh, the new period detective series from Acorn TV, trusts its audience. It trusts us to juggle a dozen plot points all at once; to clock even the most subtle (if not wholly concealed) character motivations; to piece genuinely complex narratives together, tired old four-act structure be damned. And, to do this without showing us even a glimpse inside Dalgliesh’s head until the literal final episode’s literal final scene.
It does, in short, trust us to watch.
But let me back up: For anyone unfamiliar with the character of Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, he’s the creation of critically beloved English novelist P.D. James, who spent a full 44 years of her career (from 1962 to 2008) walking in his shoes. Dalgliesh, in James’ rendering, is something of a paradox: An intensely private, quietly competent detective with London’s New Scotland Yard, he just so happens to also be a critically lauded poet who drives a Jaguar. Add to this the fact that he is, on top of all that, a still-grieving widower, and you’ve got what should amount to any detective-loving TV network’s prestige-adjacent dream.
That said, where so many other adaptations would press these contradictions for all the tension they might be worth, Dalgliesh takes the opposite tack. From the start, we are told pretty much nothing about Dalgliesh, who’s played in this newest adaptation with tight-lipped poise by Bertie Carvel (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), save for the fact that he’s a published poet and a recent widower. And even those basic facts are parceled out with the greatest reluctance imaginable: We see him sign a hardbound edition of his collected poems when asked by one of the girls at the nursing school he’s investigating in the first case (Episodes 1 and 2), but only because to refuse would be entirely impolite. We aren’t even alerted to a rather important detail about his widower status until the second case (“The Black Tower,” Episodes 3 and 4)—and even then, Dalgliesh is barely willing to acknowledge what is a genuinely devastating fact. Honestly, if he hadn’t been obliged to remind Masterson (Jeremy Irvine), his smarmy, unserious junior partner in “Shroud for a Nightingale,” of the fact that he’d been on sabbatical because his wife had died, we likely wouldn’t have found out until later episodes, either.
No—despite the fact that it’s called, literally, Dalgliesh, the series spends the majority of its first 3-case season as far away from the inside of Dalgliesh’s personal world as possible. We don’t get to his home base of London until the final two episodes; we don’t get to his flat until the final episode’s final scene; we don’t get into his head until that scene’s final twenty seconds. I mean, even in the series’ brief, artfully illustrated title sequence, we don’t even get Dalgliesh front and center for more than a breath, his painted silhouette shrinking almost immediately to a black blob in the middle of the screen, a great wash of ochre overtaking the area beneath him.
What we do get, though, is the lived experiences of the people intimately involved in each of the three cases he spends the first season working on, which are adapted from James’ third (1971), fourth (1975) and sixth (1986) novels, respectively. It is those characters whose lives are upended by the murder(s) that draw Dalgliesh to the scene; it is their personal traumas and interpersonal dramas that Dalgliesh—and, therefore, the audience—is asked to invest in. In practical terms, this means committing to both pay attention to and remember the names of (and tangled connections) between large casts of characters, which entirely change every two episodes. And with Dalgliesh speaking as little as feels humanly—or at least, professionally—possible, and rarely repeating what he’s learned to whichever DS is assisting him on each case, that also means keeping up with every single piece of dialogue or strategically framed establishing shot, as throwaway as any of it might initially seem.
If this sounds like a lot more work than a cozy British mystery usually is, well, you’re right. But I’d argue that, despite sporting a plethora of fun early-70s period details and not incorporating any of the gore and grim-dark elements native to the snow noir or prestige anti-hero models that have been the cozy mystery’s most popular foils these last several years, Dalgliesh isn’t aiming for cozy at all. Honestly, if I had to draw a comparison to any detective series in television history, it would have to be that other beacon of 1970s police work: Columbo. Not because the audience is on the solution before Dalgliesh even gets to the scene, or because Dalgliesh plays the scruffy, meddlesome clown to trick his main suspect into revealing all, but because both detectives—and therefore, both series—take the lives of the people involved in their respective cases entirely in earnest. Where Columbo’s persistent cleverness ends up making Peter Falk’s series a study in catharsis, however, Dalgliesh’s enduring, preternatural stillness ends up making Bertie Carvel’s almost meditative.
What I’m saying is, if you’re going to watch Dalgliesh—and really, I hope you do—put down your phone. Put down your phone, turn your subtitles on, and let yourself fall under the spell of television that trusts you to actually watch.
Dalgliesh premieres Monday, November 1 on Acorn TV
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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