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Television Grantchester: Not the usual soft and pretty British period piece drama

Grantchester takes place in the 1950s.

Neil Genower/Kudos and MASTERPIECE

British period-piece dramas have a singular cinematic style: Sunlit, clean and heftily romantic in the picture they present of the past. Things were better then, is the gist. This is how Brexit happened, you think. And you’d be right. There’s a pulsating nostalgia thing going on.

Grantchester (Sunday, Masterpiece on PBS, 9 p.m.) has stuck with a slight variation on that format through its three seasons and now in its fourth, it pushes back at boundaries. It’s a way-interesting, but not necessarily successful defilement of the solemn protocol. Recommended viewing, though, as a strange little skirmish with contemporary reality.

As fans of the genre will know. Grantchester is set in 1950s England and it’s about Sidney Chambers (James Norton), a clever, charismatic clergyman who solves crimes in his copious free time, usually alongside one Geordie Keating (Robson Green), a salty police officer. This all unfolds in the tiny town of Grantchester, which is very sunlit and clean. Based on the mystery novels by James Runcie, it feels cozy and if you weren’t paying close attention it could make you feel sleepy.

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Pay attention, however, and it seethes with something that smells subversive. Turns out that 1950s Cambridgeshire is a rather vile place, full of wicked people. In earlier seasons there were hints of this as Sidney turned sleuth. Now, having dealt with his rage and lust and essentially been heartbroken, Sidney wants out. He wants out of his job as a clergyman and wants out of the pretense that he does a good and important job. Not only is he changing, but England is.

In its fourth season the plot is baroque in its summoning of contemporary England into its setting. There is immigration happening, you see. People of a different skin colour are arriving and there’s a backlash against that. Along with his cop-buddy Geordie, Sidney witnesses a terribly racist and incendiary uprising.

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The season opens with Geordie lamenting how things are changing. “I blame that fella with the pelvis,” he says and the impact of rock ‘n’ roll is emphasized when Sidney and Geordie give chase to a guy while Long Tall Sally plays on the soundtrack. A black civil-rights activist is in town and that only seems to increase tension. Things get worse when a young white supremacist begins spreading his hate. And, thing is, he’s using the bible to do it.

Things get sticky when there’s a murder to solve and then even stickier when passion is ignited in Sidney by a visitor from the United States. Safe to say, things do not go well on either front.

While there is still a softness to Grantchester, there is a sharp tension under the surface. Vicar Sidney is a representative figure, trying to do the decent thing, always, but it’s the congregation that baffles him and makes him despair for humanity. He’s no innocent, this man of the cloth, but a troubled figure. Norton is great in the lead role, although it seems he will leave the series soon, and the interactions with Green’s Geordie are wonderful.

Also airing this weekend

Two good documentaries are repeated. Running With Beto (Saturday, Crave/HBO, 9 p.m. and on-demand) is an HBO documentary that chronicles former congressman Beto O’Rourke in his 2018 long-shot attempt to wrest the Texas Senate seat held by Ted Cruz. As such, it’s a warts-and-all portrait of the lanky young man. Yes, he’s charismatic and fiercely hard-working, visiting all 254 counties in the state, but he’s lacking something, you can tell. Documenting Hate: New American Nazis (Sunday CBC NN, 10 p.m. on The Passionate Eye) sets out to expose the white supremacists and Neo-Nazis involved in that 2017 Charlottesville rally, and achieves that. Most ominously it shows us how entrenched the white supremacists are.

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