Thursday, August 04, 2011

Puzzle for Magicians

Jonathan Creek is a television series in which the titular character is a magician’s creative consultant, who manages to get himself mixed up in various impossible crimes, often with supernatural touches. The entire series was written by David Renwick, and much of it is very fun, even when it is flawed. And so, in 2009 and 2010, after a five year hiatus, Jonathan Creek returned to screen in a pair of full-length specials: the 120-minute The Grinning Man (New Year’s Day 2009 Special) and the 90-minute The Judas Tree (Easter Sunday 2010 Special).

The Grinning Man is a marvellous return to form for the show, after an abysmal second half to the fourth series. It opens with a newsreel about the disappearance of a famous geneticist. The man in question scoffed the suggestion of the supernatural and accepted a dare to spend the night in a supposedly haunted room from which he disappeared, leaving nothing but a ghostly “ectoplasm” behind. Over the years, half a dozen more people spent the night in the haunted room, and each of them suffered a similar fate.

70 years after the initial disappearance, Joey Ross and her friend, Mina, are stranded in a severe thunderstorm, when they are picked up by a friendly man and arrive at Metropolis, home of the infamous Nightmare Room. Mina, being shallow, sex-obsessed, and generally brainless, decides it would be great fun to spend the night in the room, since, of course, ghosts aren’t real. Her incredulity ceases suddenly and the audience starts applauding when she disappears from the locked room in the night, just like seven people before her.

Joey Ross, played by Sheridan Smith, seems to me like an obvious attempt to pander to the younger, “hip” crowd. She’s younger than Jonathan and seems to possess his deductive faculties, which of course causes some tension, but it all feels very artificial and staged. It’s a far cry from the banter Alan Davies and Caroline Quentin had, Julia Sawalha was also far better. In fact, the main reason Joey didn’t annoy me was because her friend managed to be much more annoying in the little time we see her. At the end of the day, she’s passable, but is definitely the worst of the leading ladies Jonathan Creek has had.

The mystery is an excellent one. The mystery behind the locked room is diabolically clever and believable— basically, it leaves you satisfied, and it contains some good pieces of misdirection in the script. Unfortunately, there are some side-plots that never really seem to amount to anything, such as a whole lot of guff about a creepy-looking portrait which is given an arbitrary resolution.

Alan Davies as Jonathan Creek
There is one major problem with The Grinning Man, though, a problem it shares with the next episode, The Judas Tree. The comedy is dreadful. At the beginning of its run, the series had a high batting average, getting most of its jokes right and making the worse ones work because of Alan Davies’ brilliant line delivery. In the last few episodes of the series, it really became trashy, though: jokes became far more disgusting than amusing, and in one episode, Adam Klaus got himself literally crucified, for reasons so banal I no longer recall them. The trend just gets worse in the last two. The Grinning Man has the worse comic relief: Adam Klaus’ latest craze is for 3D pornography, and the “wacky” scenes that ensue between him and a porn star are horrendously bad and contribute absolutely nothing to the plot. The Judas Tree is somewhat better, with genuinely funny jokes about an obsessively neat cleaning lady, but Adam Klaus is once again embarrassing, doing nothing for the plot and getting involved in an arbitrary plot line where he is painted by the media as a bigoted racist. (A far better episode with this premise can be found in the excellent comedy series Father Ted.)

The Judas Tree overall, however, is a step down from The Grinning Man, despite the somewhat better comedy. It does a fine job with its supernatural atmosphere, in which a young woman believes her soul is being taken over by the ghost of an Egyptian woman (who slept in her room) who killed her lover with a curse years ago. The situation escalates into murder, when the victim manages to accuse the woman before she dies, but she insists she is innocent.

There are two murders in The Judas Tree, one buried in the past and the other in the present. The present-day murder is a silly one, with preposterous mechanics that could’ve easily gone wrong. However, I found it had fascinating ideas at heart, and I had a far easier time accepting that solution, as opposed to the solution to the murder in the past. That murder has mechanics that could’ve gone wrong even more readily, and the clues you’re given are mind-numbingly obvious.

And that’s where The Judas Tree fails: its clueing is horrendous. The past murder has clues so obvious even a child could see through them. The present day murder is not fairly clued at all— the motive is pulled from a hat, and the method is equally arbitrary— you’re given no reason to suspect the existence of several things that form part of the murder case, and as a result, you walk away very dissatisfied. It is a far cry from the ingenious cases Jonathan Creek has investigated in the past: episodes like Danse Macabre, Jack in the Box, The Scented Room, or The Black Canary.

Overall, both The Grinning Man and The Judas Tree are watchable episodes, even though the comic touches in both are atrocious. The new leading lady, Joey Ross, is not annoying, but not memorable either, and is far worse than the leading ladies of the past. The Grinning Man is seen as a grand return to form for good reason— it has a far better mystery, which is fairly clued and contains several interesting touches. The Judas Tree cheats with the audience, and leaves it even more unsatisfied than its extremely luck-filled solution would have done if fairly clued. However, The Judas Tree contains interesting ideas at heart, and I ended up somewhat liking it despite my general dissatisfaction. For those who want to see what the show is capable of, though, I recommend looking at some earlier episodes which I mentioned above.


  1. I think you're too kind by saying that The Judas Tree is only a step down from its predecessor, when it's, in fact, more like a 10 story plunge to an ugly mess on the pavement. There's just so much wrong with that episode. Almost as if it was written based of his first, and only, rough draft of the story. If blogger would've allowed spoiler tags, I would've copied my extensive notes on that episode as a supplement to your review.

    However, I completely agree with your assessment of The Grinning Man.

  2. A thumbs up for THE GRINNING MAN and a thumbs down for THE JUDAS TREE seems to be the general opinion. The first story was crazy, but the craziness was logical. It could work. The second one just moved beyond credibility. It hinged on a 'well, if this idea works, then I can do this, and then if that one works, then I can do this' series of plot devices. It would fall apart if one thing went wrong, and Creek could still make the whole thing fall down by giving a particular bit of advice to the police.

    I do like Sheridan Smith in the role of his partner. The best one was, of course, Caroline Quentin. The whole dynamic of 'he's the clever one, but she's in charge' was clever and suited his personality. He is basically the sort of person who allows himself to be pushed around. Although I like Julia Sawalha in other stuff, her character in the show was less strident than Maddy, which meant that Creek had to become stronger to balance it out, and this spoiled the original set up. At least Joey changes this, and play his rival. One of the many enjoyable things about BLACK CANARY was that Creek had to try and beat a rival to the solution.

    The comedy element is coarser, although this doesn't bother me quite so much. The character of Adam Klaus has deteriorated a little. In the pilot he is a cynical, icily unpleasant person, but he has become more and more of a fall guy as the series has gone on. The original idea seems to have been to make him a mirror image of Maddy-someone who uses and abuses Creek for their own ends, but this has been lost over time. That said, I hope that we get some more Creeks!

  3. I agree that "Judas Tree" is far weaker, but its ideas really caught my imagination. (Of course, I had much advance warning that it would be disappointing. I had low expectation, as opposed to those who loved "The Grinning Man" and were hoping for something on that level.) And personally, I'd love to see more Creek-- just tone down Adam Klaus a notch or two and it should be fine.

    I really can't say I'm fond of Smith, Sextonblake. Like I said, much of their banter seems stilted and forced, and her character comes across as a transparent attempt to click with the young, "hip" crowd. Caroline Quentin had much funner banter, and I can't say she got on my nerves. Alan Davies, though, continues to be excellent.

    Personally, I don't see anything wrong with coarse humour when done well, but it's done so poorly here! There was the masturbation joke, for instance, which I think occured in the same episode as the crucifixion... The smaller touches work best, such as Jonathan's conviction that the world's women are in a conspiracy to make him solve impossible crimes. You make a good point that the original characters and their purposes seem to have deteriorated, and that might be a contributing factor.

  4. I agree with you Patrick... although "Judas Tree" is logically a mess, it is (as I mentioned in conjunction with certain earlier episodes) a "bad example of something I like" as opposed to a "well executed example of something that doesn't interest me." "The Wrestlers Tomb" fits into the latter category, and though I can't deny the tremendous flaws of "Judas Tree," I frankly find it more interesting.

    As for the crass humor, I can't disagree, though I found that to be true even in the earliest episodes (though admittedly it has gotten much worse). Except for the lovely underplaying of Alan Davies, I've pretty much had to overlook nearly all of the humor of the series. In a sense, it mirrors my "Judas Tree" statement, as I've viewed the entire series as an example of that which I like (Carrian plotting) presented in a style which I find at worst offensive and at best rather mechanical. As much as I admire Renwick's plotting skills (even the most ludicrous of his stories-- say, "Seer of the Sands"-- I consider to have points of interest), I find it amazing that he is so revered as a comedy writer. Mechanical is indeed the word for it-- as a comedy writer might say, he doesn't hide his tracks well.