A Slightly Flawed, but Thought Provoking Whitechapel Debut
By Kristin Battestella
Detective Inspector Joe Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones) is on the up and up and ready to make his name in his new assignment to the Whitechapel district – until a series of gruesome murders stump cranky sergeant Ray Miles (Phil Davis) and fellow detectives Fitzgerald (Christopher Fulford), Kent (Sam Stockman), Sanders (Johnny Harris), and McCormack (George Rossi). Chandler’s politicking superior Commander Anderson (Alex Jennings, The Queen) also doesn’t want to hear the facts on the crimes, for they seem all too reminiscent of Whitechapel’s most infamous, 120 year old unsolved case – that of the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper. Self proclaimed Ripperologist Edward Buchan (Steve Pemberton) aids Chandler and his team in matching the copycat trends, but can these 21st century coppers be ahead of the next murder or will this new Jack for the new millennium outsmart the police once again?
Although this decade’s popular Victorian resurgence is nothing new to us 19th century aficionados, the trend has brought numerous, semi-competing materials such as the recent Sherlock Holmes adaptations stateside and abroad in film and television and more period programs like Ripper Street and this modern set but past feeling Whitechapel. Thanks to such abundant fiction, media, and Jack the Ripper twists, this type of copycat plot – subtitled The Ripper Returns – may seem familiar, yet the perennial intrigue of the original unsolved crimes and the new investigative spins are stimulating enough to carry the three episode, two-hour plus suspense here. Whitechapel could have done without some of the more standard police procedural designs and the now expected spooky, ghostly, and dark, macabre hints – remember when creepy was rare and nonconformist instead of pop? However, our contemporary need to speculate is matched by the mysteries, conspiracies, divided loyalties, leaks, and press interference. Is the killer amongst our players or an unknown revelation? Are we putting on our CSI caps or thinking like a period criminal? Morbidity aside, it’s pleasing to revisit the so-called canonical murders and fringe theories in such detail, even if the seeing double Jack the Ripper fresh insights and current investigation trappings are too on the nose at times. Would the vintage case be different if the police had cameras? What if the Ripper had a getaway car? Imagine the social media! The 45-minute episodes have stand-alone content and step up the primary storyline with each leg in proper miniseries fashion: Part 1 establishes the Ripper connections, reluctance, and disbelief while Episode 2 sees a suspect in custody and press intrusions before the Conclusion adds the infamous letter writing campaign and…I’m not telling you anymore!
Rupert Penry-Jones’ DI Chandler is initially excited about the eponymous crimes, wet behind the ears new to the street, and looking suave in a tux as he plays upward seeking politics. Viewers have seen this kind of awkward rookie in charge angle before – complete with hiding the chalk from the chalkboard pranks– but we’ve also seen Penry-Jones on other capers such as MI-5 long enough to like and trust Chandler amid his own compulsive rehearsings before the mirror and doubts. These initial characterizations are typical, but Chandler can’t be too perfect when he’s willing to believe the fantastic copycat possibilities or be angry his team isn’t up to snuff. Interesting humor also litters Whitechapel thanks to Chandler’s mockability – after demanding his men wear ties and eat healthy, they adorn joke threads and speculate on their boss’ gaydar. Some of these quirky attempts are a bit out of place; built-in irony already exists in Chandler’s chastising the locals for not knowing their homegrown Ripper facts. Though it’s probably meant to show how the bureaucrats don’t have his back or just how in over his head Chandler really is, he’s unevenly cool with the society types yet nervous with lower coppers. These written clichés hamper Penry-Jones and come too easy, yes, but rather than staying established or stagnant, Chandler loosens up, goes unshaven, and deduces as he should for a thrilling finish.
Whitechapel continues this somewhat confusing, formulaic character development with its ensemble, for detectives Christopher Fulford (The Brief), Sam Stockman (Family Affairs), Johnny Harris (RocknRolla), and George Rossi (The Bill) are both stereotypical fillers and well developed series regulars. Is the show about these eccentricities of the district or the outlandish crimes and Ripper flair? It’s too apparent that the seasonal thread is Jack the Ripper while the character establishment is in hopes for a sequel. Understandably, we don’t see any of our players at home, yet each adds a critical piece to the investigation. Though there should have been more of Claire Rushbrook (Mutual Friends) as pregnant pathologist Caroline Llewellyn – her banter and gruesome, biological moments suffice on the creepy and service the plot – the pairing and chemistry among the team works. Grumpy, secretive sergeant Phil Davis (North Square) starts cliché, but he has the pulse on the street and refreshingly looks like a real detective compared to Penry-Jones’ tall, blonde pretty. Steve Pemberton (Benidorm) as Ripperologist Ed Buchan also adds the right humor, charm, and reasonable Ripper exposition. Despite obvious writing and red herrings, he fits the expected expertise and adds a personal quaint. This cast shows up to play even if the page lets them down, and their clashes, conspiracy theories, and outlandish suggestions add moments of closeness and conflict as the case twists and turns. I thought I had it figured out, then I didn’t, then I did… aha!
Of course, the London locations are sweet, from the dark, cobblestone alleyways to the high society clubs and suits. The look creates an almost Victorian high and low parallel, but the well done, dimly lit, old-fashioned filming design feels at odds with the trying to be modern askew angles, herky jerky flashes, and strobe camera work. It’s not as gruesome as today’s CSI audiences are accustomed to seeing, but intercut macabre photos, rapid autopsies blinks, brief corpse nudity, and jumbled, gaudy scene transitions in any combination there of are unnecessary, too obviously wannabe stylish, and we can’t see a dang thing anyway. Somehow, slow motion is randomly thrown in for good measure, too. One probably has to like British crime dramas to enjoy Whitechapel, but these visual attempts at setting it apart from being like other procedurals don’t quite work. Series 1 director S.J. Clarkson (Life on Mars) doesn’t go off the helter skelter deep end with the edgy look, but I’d rather have no design flair distracting from the story. Stick with the solid investigation instead – the characters, crimes, and disturbed suggestions come thru just fine, and the past meets present set dressings do wonders! The physicality of old chalkboards, a small, dated office, and carefully placed red accents set the scene against smartly used split screen footage, CCTV technology, and now admittedly 2009 blackberries and desktops. Longtime cop show viewers, however, will cringe at the conveniently dropped police protocols, things like, oh, I don’t know, calling for back up or wearing gloves when touching a crime scene! This is the biggest East End case in 120 years and yet five haphazard constables with no support are going it alone?
Have I used words like ‘cliché’, ‘stereotypical’, and ‘again’ a lot in describing Whitechapel? Writers Ben Court and Caroline Ip (Mayday) do at times play it safe with a case that could have been done on any other Scotland Yard show but also occasionally try too hard in this old meets new Ripper twist. Ixnay this flashy on the nose and fortunately, the meaty, well-acted drama is there above and beyond these goofy, Unsolved Mysteries-esque mock docudramas we get stateside these days. This swift First Season is easily available on one disc with some interesting behind the scenes interviews, and a straight run thru is the best way to see Whitechapel’s case unfold. Jack the Ripper enthusiasts, viewers newly tuned in to investigation shows or those who like a sophisticated thinking person’s thriller can see past the cliché starts and police procedural trappings for an intense, down to the wire, provocative Whitechapel debut dénouement.