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John Doyle: Watch River, a masterpiece of melancholy crime drama

In this space yesterday, I was jawing on about the state of things in the Canadian TV racket. Layoffs, diminishing profit and a diminishing number of viewers for the traditional TV model.

All true, and it is true, too, that great TV drama abounds. In the chaos of things, the excellence keeps coming.

And in the chaos of things in Canada, it would be great if somebody arranged for viewers to see such sublime series as Hulu's Casual and Amazon's The Man in the High Castle. These shows are already watched illegally and, you know, some of the vast amounts of money still being made in Canada might be spent on acquiring the best of television.

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On the Netflix front, viewers are binging on Jessica Jones. And rightly so – it is boundary-pushing drama, much better than its origins in a Marvel comic might suggest.

But there's more and better on Netflix right now. More adult fare and more engrossingly grim studies in loss, heartbreak and vulnerability.

River (now streaming on Netflix) is the sort of drama that critics rejoice in seeing. It is a stunner and an absolute pleasure to recommend. It is a formidably fine twist on the familiar police procedural. In fact, when it ended recently in Britain, one critic declared that a second season would be redundant because the first was perfect and "a follow-up would ruin its magic." Again, true.

On paper, it doesn't sound like anything fresh. Made by the BBC, with Netflix as a partner, if it's briefly synopsized, it sounds like a commonplace, grim Brit crime drama. A veteran detective suffers from guilt after his long-time partner is killed, and he hallucinates. The dead partner is now his ghost-partner.

But River – written by Abi Morgan, who also wrote The Hour and the movies The Iron Lady and Suffragette – is a stunningly successful hybrid of Nordic noir and the traditional, gloomy British police procedural. It is also about solving a murder, but mainly about the intricacies of the human mind dealing with loss and terrible grief. It is melancholy itself.

River stars Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting, Thor) as Detective Inspector John River, a veteran, fiftysomething cop with an excellent record of solving tough cases. It is only that reputation that is keeping him on the job because, as the series starts, he's mentally ill. It's just that his bosses don't understand quite how traumatized he is.

We meet River as he goes about London in his car, accompanied by the ghost of his dead partner, Detective Sergeant Jackie (Stevie) Stevenson (Nicola Walker), who joshes with him and sings along to the disco music on the radio. She was gunned down on the street. River was there and, like everyone, he is mystified about who shot her and why.

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One of the truly striking aspects of the series is its adherence to the unglamorous. Almost every face, including River's, is middle-aged and haggard. The weight of the world and all its woes have made every character immutably fatigued and careworn. And yet there is a macabre sense of humour running through everything, a gentle sense of comedy that eventually underscores the poignancy of River's grief.

"You can't bring Stevie back," River's boss (Lesley Manville) snaps at him. And Stevie's mother (played by the wonderful Irish actor Sorcha Cusack) practically sneers at his despondency. But, for River, Stevie isn't gone. She's by his side. And then others – other victims – begin appearing. River's existence is drenched in death and he is puzzled by the attractions of the despondency he feels. He's severely depressed and he knows it.

The six-part drama is, as some reviews have said, pitch-perfect. Over six hours, the mystery of Stevie's death unravels and River becomes deeply knowledgeable about despair and anxiety, something that enables him to solve other crimes.

Like Abi Morgan's The Hour, River also has an exquisite visual richness. It is mostly emphatic greys, with flashes of colour arriving at disconcerting moments. You can almost smell the wet, wintry, overcast London in which it is set. And it has a lyrical literary quality, something it shares with the Nordic noir genre. In the first episode, the guts of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet arevery delicately woven into it.

It is simply astonishing to find the police procedural as cleverly reinvented as it is in River, and with such wry, poignant force. It is brilliantly done, a little masterpiece of entertainment raised to the level of grave, heartbreaking storytelling.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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