Saturday, January 23, 2016

Vera: “Muddy Waters” (ITV/American Public Television, made 2014, released 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Vera episode KPBS ran last night, “Muddy Waters” — a title that would make it sound like a biopic of the great African-American (and, like so many other great Black musicians, part-Native American) blues singer, but no such luck — was actually quite a good mystery show whose biggest problem was the sheer welter of suspects and plots and subplots to a point where it was hard to keep track of the players without a scorecard. The show begins with the huge slurry tank at the Pryor dairy farm in Northumberland (in the far north of England just below the Scottish border) getting clogged, and it turning out that the clog is due to a dead body being found therein. The body comes to light when one of the farm’s workers — all undocumented immigrants smuggled in from Kosovo (Britain may not have a land border with a poor country but that doesn’t mean their employers can’t bring in undocumented workers from elsewhere in Europe and exploit the hell out of them the way U.S. employers do with Mexicans!) — stirs the slurry tank to unclog it, and the body comes floating out — and some of the foul black liquid in the tank splashes on Detective Chief Inspector Vera Claythorne’s overcoat (which she calls a “mac” — I guess the banker never wears one in the pouring rain; very strange) and she spends a good chunk of her “down” time in the rest of the show trying to get the stain (and the smell!) out. What follows is an hour and a half of mind-numbing confusion in which the police have as much trouble finding out who the victim was as who killed him and why — apparently the murderer was hoping that the slurry chemicals would dissolve the body over time and it wouldn’t be discovered until that happened — and it turns out the victim was a young man named Jack Reeves, who had been engaged to marry a 16-year-old girl (both sets of parents had approved) until he called off the wedding just a day before it was to take place.

A person turns up who claims to have been Jack Reeves’ male lover and who says the reason Jack called off the wedding was that he suddenly realized he was Gay (yeah, right) — though I suppose even in 2014 (the copyright date on this episode, though it didn’t air in Britain on their Independent Television commercial channel until April 2015; the Vera stories are set in contemporary times, not in the past) it wouldn’t be especially easy to come out in such a rural area as Northumberland. It turns out that Jack has another deep, dark secret in his closet: Toby Pryor (Jack Fitzpatrick), deaf son of Danny Pryor (Mark Reeves) and his wife Karen (Alex Reid), is not really Danny’s son at all but Jack’s, courtesy of an affair he and Karen had when Karen was a local schoolteacher and Jack was a 16-year-old in her class. (This part of the story is told matter-of-factly and without the hideous breast-beating and guilt-mongering a U.S. version of this tale would have brought to it.) What gives it away is that both Jack and his father Billy (Mark Womack) were hard of hearing, and apparently their form of deafness is hereditary and Toby simply got it worse than his biological dad and granddad did. It turns out that Jack was killed by Goran Vlasic (of the pickle Vlasics?), played by Greg Kolpakchi, one of the workers on the Pryor farm, when they got into an argument — and Goran was filmed committing the crime by fellow worker Zamir Ilic (George Lasha), who attempted to blackmail him and was himself Goran’s next victim, though Goran faked the killing to look like suicide. It’s not much of a mystery, and though I wouldn’t quite say we reach the point where instead of a whodunit it becomes a whocareswhodunit, it comes awfully close. A lot of U.S. TV mysteries make the mistake of being too obvious by severely restricting the number of suspects; this one, like a number of British shows, errs in the opposite direction by setting up so many suspects and so many potential motives for them it gets confusing. Still, Vera Claythorne herself is a compelling character — a middle-aged woman of old-fashioned mien but also a bulldog when it comes to her investigations (as I wrote when I first saw a Vera episode, she’s what Miss Marple would have been if Agatha Christie had made her an official policewoman instead of a well-meaning amateur) — and the actor playing her assistant, Kenny Doughty, is tall, dark and very sexy.