Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Grantchester series 6

That I adored the first three series of Grantchester should come as a surprise to no one; my affection for the “James Norton years” is plastered all over this site. Shortly after the first series aired in late 2014, I hailed it as the year’s top show, labeling it “an original: part murder mystery, part character drama — but in proportions I've never seen before, equally (and exquisitely) balanced. Each episode a mere 45 minutes, each one offering up a new case as it pushes the ongoing story-lines forward — but the continuing plots never feel slight, and the detective work never feels slighted.” And although I found the supporting cast uniformly strong, I reserved my highest praise for top-billed James Norton, an actor at that time unknown to me: “He's [Sidney Chambers,] a vicar in 1953 England, still mired in memories of the war: tortured and self-loathing, looking to others to deliver him from the darkness. Yet he's also the ideal father confessor: open-faced, reassuring, nonjudgmental — except when it comes to himself, and then he's unforgiving. ‘I'm supposed to be setting an example,’ he bemoans in one episode, when his fondness for whiskey and weakness for woman have led him to another indiscretion — and yet his empathy for others, and his sincere belief in the lessons he preaches, make him refreshingly human, and genuinely heroic.”

I marveled at how assured Grantchester was in its execution — particularly impressive for a show challenging convention and redefining the genre. (“Writer Daisy Coulam has precious few credits to her resume, but she's a talent to watch, just as Grantchester is a show to cherish.”) And I continued to marvel when Series 2 arrived in 2016, and daringly, took a hard look at the bond between its own protagonists, vicar Sidney Chambers and police detective Geordie Keating (Robson Green, superb). Series 2 explored the relationship at the very heart of the show, asking: would, in fact, a priest and a police detective become best mates in 1950's Cambridge? Or would their dissimilar views — above all, on whether there are moral laws that override man-made ones — doom any potential friendship? Grantchester was unafraid to question the plausibility of its own premise, and did so not merely successfully, but eloquently and (ultimately) affirmingly, all while tackling some lofty issues. (How do we maintain some semblance of morality in an immoral world?) This was a series that not only aimed high, but soared. It achieved more conflict and character growth in a six-episode arc than most shows do in ten or twenty — and all while juggling weekly mysteries.

I continued to marvel as Series 3 presented Sidney with his greatest challenge, as he found himself battling an institution whose ideologies he'd come to question. Series 3 asked: in times of crisis, do we listen to the church, trust our instincts, or follow our hearts? As Sidney looked around, he saw his congregation clinging to doctrine-driven morality — and miserable. And so — in perhaps the series’ most powerful episode to date— he lashed out at the archdeacon: "We're hypocrites! We stand up there and we preach in certainties. 'If you behave like this, you'll be rewarded. If you don't, you'll be punished.' We tell people to lead a perfect life, and when they don't, we are the cause of their suffering." For Sidney — whose curate Leonard was so shamed by his sexuality that he attempted suicide; whose housekeeper Mrs. Maguire was so certain of the sanctity of marriage that she let her errant husband fleece her of her savings; and who himself had been made to feel guilt and shame for seeking happiness with the divorced Amanda Hopkins, a woman he’d long adored — how could he continue preaching God's word? As in previous seasons, the characters were beautifully served, the structure expertly fashioned, and the traps lovingly set. I marveled at it all.

And then I stopped marveling.

James Norton elected to depart after Series 3. He came back for two episodes in Series 4, to allow his character to be written off. It was the worst possible solution. One of the glories of Grantchester lay in Coulam’s style, which was both loving and dispassionate. She never editorialized her characters. The first two episodes in Series 4 were all but submerged by the voice of the writer, steering our responses. Coulam justified Sidney’s hasty departure by posturing that he had been feeling unfulfilled since Series 3 concluded; a new arrival to Grantchester — a fiery African-American woman hellbent on battling social injustice — ignited the revolutionary in him, and he found new purpose by following her back to the States. Except it all felt phony. Yes, Sidney was very much a former soldier who couldn’t stop fighting, but to get so caught up in a stranger’s quest for civil rights that he’d follow her to America with barely a farewell to his friends? Coulam scrambled to make something convincing in two episodes that would’ve been challenging even in six.

“Do you ever feel not right in your own skin?” Sidney demanded of Geordie early on: “Like everything isn’t quite how it should be?” (Geordie had no idea what he was talking about, and neither did we.) With no time to properly establish a bond between Sidney and this firebrand Viola Todd, Coulam was left splattering the screen with purple prose, the sort the show had scrupulously avoided. (“This isn’t your world, I know that,” Sidney informed Viola after just two episodes, “But it’s not mine anymore, either — not without you.” Yikes.) And she buttoned it all with one of those unsubtle sendoff lines designed as reassurance: “Sidney Chambers, happy,” Geordie mused, as the vicar prepared for his unconvincing departure. “Who’d have thought?” You’ve rarely seen a talented creative team working so feverishly to justify a piece of plotting.

And the back end of Series 4 was just as troubling. There were three episodes devoted to getting to know the new vicar, Will Davenport. His introduction was promising enough. His first full episode began with him repairing his motorcycle while listening to rock 'n' roll. The point was made instantly: this was no Sidney Chambers. (Sidney had a fondness for jazz and cruised Grantchester by bicycle.) But who exactly was he? He implored his congregation to call him by his first name, and following his first sermon, insisted on serving refreshments himself, in the parish kitchen. And when he was summoned to the police station to assist in an investigation — a boy had wandered in, bloodied and holding a Bible — it turned out Will knew sign language. Well, he was just too good to be true. The script laid it on a bit thick, but Tom Brittney — at an imposing 6’2” — was charming. He was most charming when he smiled, like a gentle giant. And like a giant, apparently not of this world. “People are born with an innate goodness,” he insisted to Geordie: “How they turn out is a choice.” How could someone have reached a certain age and still be clinging to such naïve convictions?

But the script — a mystery set among a Mennonite family — quickly followed a darker path, and Will’s character did too. The following episode involved Will’s own family in a murder, but it was Will who was the real casualty. His father was a monster of almost mythic proportions; the family had barely sat down to dinner before he began recounting embarrassing anecdotes from Will’s youth. (“16 years old and fell in love with a whore.”) Ultimately Will’s father killed a business associate, then committed suicide — all in the course of 45 minutes. (His father was introduced in order to be killed off.) Pacing had long been Coulam’s strong suit; as events unfolded, they had an easy inevitability: the return of Mrs. M’s husband; Leonard’s first (onscreen) kiss; the impasses at which Geordie and Sidney found themselves in Series 2, and Amanda and Sidney in Series 3. The end of Series 4 felt plot-driven — and just as frantic as Sidney’s departure. Let’s get to know Will, by witnessing the demons that spawned him — and those that drive him. Except we didn’t get to know him at all. If meeting his wretched family — and seeing the world he had fought to escape — was meant to deepen him, it didn't. The family drama was overwrought and underwhelming; it made no impression.

Nevertheless, the death of Will’s father cemented Will’s transformation from a gentle giant into a brooding beast. Except it wasn’t a characterization that flattered Brittney; it cut his expressiveness in half. When he punched out Leonard at the end of the episode, (apparently) unleashing decades of pent-up anger and frustration, his face went blank, and his body language grew weak and unconvincing. Will’s anger never seemed to emanate from anywhere; the “angry young man” was already a ‘50s cliché, and Will Davenport didn’t add anything to it. (His constant need to punch people didn’t seem to stem from the scars of his childhood. You couldn’t tell where it came from.) You could understand the creative team leading Brittney down a path that didn’t flatter him in his early episodes, when his talents were untested. But by the end of his first series, surely it occurred to someone that Will being driven by “inner turmoil” wasn’t something at which Brittney excelled. Nonetheless, that’s the Will who emerged in full force in Series 5; one of the episode synopses trumpeted him “confronting his demons.” But none of that made its way to the screen; Will didn’t seem to be wrestling with anything — he just seemed dour. (A stony glaze formed over his face. It had begun to take hold at the end of the previous series, but it calcified here.)

And Brittney seemed unable to siphon his various story-lines through one consistent characterization. James Norton could carry his turmoil from story-line to story-line; no matter how unencumbered he seemed in a particular scene, his features betrayed the weight of the guilt, shame and fear that burdened him. After the fourth episode of the first season aired, I had emailed a friend my eight-word write-up: “Oh my God, that was bleak and intense.” (I was left so shattered, I didn’t have the energy for more.) That particular episode (still one of Grantchester‘s most powerful) focused on a case involving attitudes towards — and violence against — homosexuals. Woven through the weekly mystery were subplots that included Sidney’s agony over a wartime decision to end a fellow soldier’s suffering; a German widow reentering his life, igniting Amanda‘s jealousy and Mrs. M’s bigotry; and Geordie’s youngest taking ill, and how it impacted Geordie's ability to do his job. (Sidney sought to restore his new friend's clarity and charity.) It was staggering how effortlessly Coulam could jump from detective work to personal drama and back again without any sense of disorientation — but she could do so in great part because everything was filtered through Sidney‘s character. His wounded psyche bled onto the screen, infusing all the story-lines with an urgency that was almost unbearable. (If he found new happiness with the widow in the fourth episode, then cheated on her in the fifth, you understood the demons that had driven him to self-destruct. Even at his most content, he always seemed one grim incident or memory away from unraveling.) And yet his reservoirs of compassion kept his feelings of futility in check.

In Series 5, Will was asked to juggle his own set of story-lines: his mother’s sudden engagement to a man as self-absorbed as his late father; a vow of celibacy that was tested by an aggressive female reporter; and his misplaced trust in the owner of the gym he frequented. But Brittney seemed unable to link the story-lines emotionally; they never tonally coalesced. They seemed to be competing for his attention, not shaping — or shaped by — his character. You had no idea what Will was thinking much of the time. (When things got hot and heavy with the reporter, then he pulled away, then returned the following episode to propose, what was going on in his head? She couldn’t have meant that much to him, so was he just willing to marry anyone to have sex? Were other factors playing into his proposal: his mother’s impending marriage, lingering grief from his father‘s death, the trauma of seeing weekly murders? You had no idea.) And as a result, the seasonal arc felt elusive, ultimately reducing to “my mother’s getting married and I’m upset — oh, wait, I had sex with a nun: I’m fine.” Although Emma Kingsman-Lloyd, Grantchester’s caring and resourceful Executive Producer, has since described to me the impulse behind Series 5 — one every bit as deep and meaningful as what I had so admired in the earliest seasons — it wasn’t what I had witnessed on the screen. What I saw were the bare bones of plot, not the thoughtful exploration of character to which I'd grown accustomed. The series didn't play to Brittney's strengths. His performances became oppressive; Will seemed annoyingly sanctimonious and solemn. Was this really an improvement over the newfangled charmer who was first introduced to us?

And all the while, the very premise of the series lay unjustified. Turning Will into the new Sidney — a man battling “inner demons” — didn’t explain why he was assisting the police department in solving cases. Sidney cared so much about his parishioners that he got to know them well; his empathy afforded him insights that Geordie lacked. (Like Agatha Christie‘s Miss Marple, he had a gift for recognizing familiar behavior in unfamiliar settings.) That notion made the premise plausible. In Series 5, Will was defined by an almost willful ignorance: of what his mother needed, what his girlfriend wanted, what his coach was doing. How did that translate into someone who would be useful to the police in solving crimes? The show attempted to cement Will’s position at Geordie’s side by having him insist to Leonard, during his very first investigation, “It felt like I was exactly where God needed me to be.” (Series 4 never took the time to show us anything it could tell us in under 10 seconds.) But when he reached character insights ahead of Geordie, it felt false. Will didn’t have Sidney’s gift for empathy; his face was a blank slate, emblematic of someone who hadn’t learned to process the complexities or consequences of adult behavior. “What neurosis leads a vicar to believe he’s some kind of detective?" a professor pondered of Will at one point. It was a valid question — it was like a writer’s Freudian slip — but the creative team didn’t seem to recognize the irony. Will’s obsession with catching killers lacked justification, yet he ran roughshod over the series’ mysteries. In one episode, he solved a case by himself; he didn’t even pick up Geordie on the way to the interrogation. What the dickens?

Another issue that began to plague Grantchester by Series 5 was the splintering of its cast. In the first three series, everything had been filtered through Sidney. He judged Leonard‘s decision to get married, jealous that he himself was unable to be with the woman he loved; he weighed in on Geordie’s affair with Margaret, which preceded — then paralleled — his own affair with Amanda; and when Mrs. M’s husband fleeced her of her savings, it was Sidney who took off in search of him. He imbued all the subplots with a commonality of purpose and tone. By Series 5, the supporting cast was so firmly established that they required story-lines, but Will, newcomer to the community, could hardly serve as the common thread. So the story-lines went their separate ways, and Grantchester morphed into a much more traditional series: one about a quaint town where — when the local vicar and police detective weren’t solving crimes — we kept returning to the sort of subplots that seemed designed to “give everyone something to do.” With the story-lines no longer funneled through one (angst-ridden) perspective, Grantchester edged uncomfortably close to what myopic critics had expected it to be when it debuted in 2014. A friend and fellow critic wrote me following the second episode of Series 5, “The lighter, more comedic parts are making it feel like Father Brown.”

Series 6 hits the reset button. It’s so perfect that after a season of splintered story-lines, we start with everyone vacationing together at a holiday camp. But more crucially, it wastes no time addressing the Will Davenport problem. The brooding beast is finally reduced to human proportions. Everyone puts Will in his place in Series 6; it’s delightful. The man we’d so frequently witnessed venting his anger on a punching bag becomes one himself. The second episode is practically a parade of people telling him off: the head of an adoption agency, the mother who gave away her child, the young man who crashes a christening. They don’t even know him, and still they’re fed up with his holier-than-thou attitude. “I came here because you’re supposed to listen,” the young man insists — unsubtly reminding Will of his calling — when he comes to the church looking to confess, and Will launches into one of his soliloquies. Later, Geordie has his own go at Will, when he discovers that he ducked his military service: “You used your posh school and your privilege to buy your way out of doing your duty, and I think you are a disgrace.” (Geordie sends him packing halfway through a case; it’s splendid.) And Geordie’s ire doesn’t let up; a few episodes later, he lashes out, “You don’t do much of anything as far as I can see. You talk and you talk. Your friend’s in prison, Will, and you’re writing letters [to see that he’s granted clemency]. You can’t even drag your sorry backside in to see him.” It’s lovely.

Series 6 finally makes good use of Tom Brittney. It goes beyond “Will’s demons” into something far more interesting — and better suited to its leading man. James Norton could do brooding for days. (McMafia is practically all brooding.) Brittney has a taste for comedy and a flair for the dramatic — but his singular feature is that his imposing figure masks a surprising innocence. We saw it when he was first introduced. And that’s the character who’s revisited and refined in Series 6: the poor little rich boy who hasn’t grown up — and is only now starting to realize it. Where Brittney excels in Series 6 are in those moments when he comes to understand the impact of his upbringing — not how much it decimated him (as Series 5 suggested), but how much it shielded him. How little he understands, and how much he has to learn. A sort of shamed naïveté clouds Will’s face repeatedly throughout Series 6. It looks good on him.

As do the glimpses of what his upbringing must have been like: not the part ruled by a domineering father, but the rebellious part — the ways Will acted out, when he was carefree and heedless. It may have been tied to a world he was desperate to escape, but it remains a highly engaging side of his personality — and for bringing that to the fore, we have Emily Patrick to thank. Introduced in the second episode as Will’s stepsister Tamara, she’s a breath of fresh air; she brings some much-needed irreverence to a character who has been taking himself so seriously. A post-war Sally Bowles (sporting a wig worthy of Rapunzel), she goes about giggling and flirting and finding amusement in even the most mortifying situations. Will lightens up every time she’s around. He enjoys the attention and the banter — in a way that never convinced with the “girl reporter.” And with Leonard and Geordie mired in misery for so much of Series 6, Will’s lapses into reckless impudence are just what’s needed. (I suspect Coulam sees these lapses as a natural outcome of the Series 5 finale, in which the nun instructed Will to stop being so hard on himself. But because none of Will’s character beats in Series 5 had made much sense, this feels more a course correction than anything else.)

“You’re a dark horse, Mr. Davenport,” Tamara purrs at one point, and Will reassures her, with pride, “You don’t know the half of it.” Tamara unleashes the 16-year-old Will who got a girl pregnant, the 17-year-old who had sex with a married woman. She returns him to his roots, and it feels liberating — both for Will and for Grantchester itself. When Will learns that Tamara has planted incriminating evidence on his person during a well-timed hug, he’s not angered by her duplicity; he’s impressed by her ingenuity. Together they bring some much-needed light to a very dark season. There’s an exquisite sequence late in Series 6 when Geordie invites an old army buddy Johnny for dinner, much to his wife Cathy’s surprise. As they sit at the dinner table, Geordie’s eldest Esme asks about their time in Burma. It’s a taboo subject at Geordie’s house, but Johnny offers up an eloquent speech about the hardships of war, and how it’s ameliorated only by knowing you can count on those fighting by your side. You sense Johnny’s sincerity, Geordie’s unease, Esme’s pride, and Cathy’s fascination at hearing about a period Geordie has never opened up about. And then we cut away to Will and Tamara stealing a boat — just so they can enjoy a late-night punt. Earlier, Geordie — still seething over Will shirking his military service — had accused Will of being a do-nothing. This is what Will considers “doing something”; he momentarily equates this harebrained stunt with the bravery of soldiers fighting on the battlefield. It reminds us how his upbringing has stunted his development, but we don’t judge him for it — we’re too entertained by the proceedings, and impressed by the careful, cunning juxtaposition of scenes.

The approach to Brittney‘s character changes dramatically in Series 6. He’s no longer used as a Sidney surrogate; he’s not asked to tonally ground the season. Instead, he’s used as counterpoint to Robson Green and Al Weaver. Geordie and Leonard get the longer arcs, and Will’s response to those arcs illuminates the flaws in his character. No longer merely the hothead with the cool set of wheels, Will in Series 6 becomes a case study in upper-class dysfunction: a walking example of the empathy lacking among so many reared in privilege. It’s something Coulam hadn’t been able to manage with Amanda’s husband (who transformed from stuffy aristocrat to abusive spouse overnight) or Will’s own father. (Their uncaring natures seemed dictated by plot rather than character.) It falls to Will to betray a defect peculiar to many born into wealth or title: their silent superiority, their unapologetic double standard. Will’s mortified recognition of his emotional shortcomings is one of the most striking aspects of Series 6. And upon recognizing that Will is mostly defined by the walls he’s built around himself, the creative team further tweaks the series by adjusting the way the mysteries are solved. For the most part, we no longer see the vicar teach the police detective how to tap into human behavior, but the detective show the vicar how to follow the evidence. Will adapts to Geordie’s methods — like a young boy eager to impress his father — and the series once again makes sense.

The trauma of Will’s youth — that reticence that he can’t seem to rid himself of — manifests itself in fascinating ways in Series 6. When Leonard is accused of gross indecency at the holiday camp, all Will has to do — to make it go away — is to give him an alibi. But Will finds it almost impossible to commit such an intimate act of kindness. He bellows that the law should be repealed; he forges sermons on tolerance. But those are easy, hollow gestures. Geordie, who a few years earlier would have found the notion unforgivable, urges him to lie under oath. Even the devout Mrs. M (now remarried, and redubbed Mrs. C) begs him, “Lie to them. Please — I can’t lose my boy.” But Will can’t see the trees for the forest: “Lie under oath to hide Leonard from a stupid outdated law.” Fixating on the absurdities of the law feels safe; standing up for a friend exposes him in a way he’s not prepared for. (It’s in no small part because Will is so tortured by the decision that Leonard steps forward and confesses.) Sidney would’ve lied for Leonard in a heartbeat. How peculiar — and how fascinating — that Will, who escaped his family to better serve mankind, so agonizes over the decision. But that’s the damage of his upbringing. He became a vicar to help people, but in many ways, that’s a safe and sheltered calling. Being there for a friend, on the other hand, seems somehow an unfamiliar, vaguely unsatisfying concept to him — and perhaps a bit daunting. (In the same fashion, he can’t bring himself to visit Leonard in prison; he’d much rather pontificate than be present.) Old sins cast long shadows — and Tom Brittney’s shadow is a particularly long one. He makes marvelous use of it in Series 6.

It’s not just the show figuring out what to do with Will that elevates Series 6. It’s the use of Leonard to tie the proceedings together, as Sidney once did. In the first three series, Sidney weighed in on everyone’s story-lines; in Series 6, everyone weighs in on Leonard’s. (It impacts some characters in ways they don’t expect.) It flips the conceit, but it’s no less successful for being upended. And the use of Leonard as the focal point is inspired. Through all the challenges of the previous few years, Leonard kept being our link to Grantchester’s glory days. Really only one episode in Series 4 and 5 felt like the show you had come to love: the one sandwiched between Sidney’s departure and Will’s ascension, in which Geordie and Leonard teamed up to solve a case. (It was penned by John Jackson, who has proven a gift to the series.) After a few scenes, Leonard was ready to back out (“I don’t think I’m cut out for this”), and Geordie was quick to agree — but those were the characters’ observations. In fact, Green and Weaver were delightful together: able to infuse their scenes with both levity and gravitas, not to mention shared history. As this once-daring show seemed to succumb to an easy predictability, it was Leonard who kept it fresh. The most affecting moment in all of Series 5 came near the very end, when Mrs. C invited Leonard‘s beau to Will’s birthday party. As the series floundered, it was easy to think, “Why couldn’t the show have just focused on Geordie and Leonard solving crimes?”

Series 6 gives us our answer. Coulam had other plans for Leonard. She had introduced him in episode 2 as a titillating piece of gossip. (A friend of Sidney’s sister had announced at a party, “I can tell you all about my lodger. He’s looking for work as a curate. He’s a homosexual.”) Was a gay character in the 1950’s really going to be reduced to a conversation starter? Of course not. But although Leonard had faced a series of challenges that were always convincing and often heartrending, the show’s format meant that those challenges were typically sorted within each series arc. If Leonard determined to marry a woman in Series 3, buckling under pressure from the bishop, he’d renounce the engagement by episode 4, and be rewarded two episodes later with a kiss from his boyfriend Daniel. If Mrs. C caught him and Daniel in an embrace midway through Series 4 and shut him out, outraged and betrayed, his loving nature ensured that she’d grant him a measure of acceptance by season’s end. During the first five seasons, the core characters had come to accept — and in many cases embrace — Leonard’s sexuality. It felt emotionally satisfying, but how realistic was Leonard‘s ability to avoid any long-term repercussions? Repercussions that, in 1950’s England, were inevitable.

Series 6 returns Leonard to the real world. As he’s accused of — and tried for — gross indecency, Coulam takes an unflinching look at how homosexuals were forced to live — and harassed and prosecuted — in the 1950s. The storyline feels beautifully timed within the run of the show. Through the course of five seasons, we’ve watched Leonard discard the self-loathing that initially defined him and flirt with something bordering on self-respect. We’ve invested in that journey. Can Leonard, now subjected to public scrutiny and shame, retain his hard-won sense of self? And if he can’t, can he bear it? Can we?

Grantchester had shown us as early as its fourth episode how brutally homosexuals were treated at the time; even Geordie was disgusted by the “pansies” he roughed up and put away. Series 6 reminds us that although the core characters may have softened in their view of homosexuality, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 remains firmly in place. “It’s barely a crime,” Cathy argues to Geordie, almost frivolously dismissing the charges against Leonard, but Geordie is quick to counter, “Except it is. And I have sent men down for it.” As indeed he has. This story-line has years of backstory to pull from — plot points, character development, whole episodes devoted to the subject matter — and the creative team mines every moment, beautifully: Leonard’s fear at being blackmailed and outed, his decency and generosity in confessing before Will has to lie on his behalf. And his descent into self-pity as the trial approaches, as he bathes in jazz and drowns in alcohol. (Sidney taught him well.) “All my life I’ve hidden what I am for fear of this mortification,” he confesses to Daniel: “And now it is upon me. I am to be disgraced and bring disgrace to all who know me.” The courtroom episode itself — strategically positioned midway though the series — is a bravura piece of writing by Coulam; both the legal and character beats feel spot on, and even moments that are determinedly surprising — like the judge issuing a different ruling than the one Geordie has led us to expect — seem rooted in precedent.

Leonard is on everyone’s mind in Series 6; he becomes the glue that Sidney once was. It doesn’t feel like a calculated move on the part of the creators; it stems from character. “You have such vast reserves of compassion,” Daniel reminds him: “If only you were able to draw upon them for yourself.” The kindness Leonard has bestowed upon everyone — even the ones who didn’t deserve it — reaps its rewards; everyone becomes consumed with his plight. (Their devotion to Leonard — and our own — even prompts the creative team to tweak one of their most hallowed tropes. Traditionally, Grantchester episodes concluded with a portion of a sermon, as the vicar touched upon themes explored that week. Series 6 drops the convention altogether: most of the episodes end with a scene from Leonard’s ongoing story-line; the scripting aims straight for the heart. And the two times episodes end with a sermon, the sermon comes from Leonard.) And through it all, Leonard’s storyline allows the core characters to interact in surprising ways, in the best Grantchester manner. Following the trial, Mrs. C walks into the church where Daniel has been praying. He couldn't very well attend the court proceedings, of course, so Mrs. C has come to inform him of the verdict, her curt demeanor — as ever — barely disguising her caring disposition: “Six months in prison. Thought you’d want to know.” He turns away, dazed and disgusted, then — regaining his composure — thanks her. As she starts to walk away, he blurts out, “I’ll be so lost without him.” She turns back, a smile forcing back tears: “So will I.” And they clasp hands. It’s a stunning scene: two supporting characters sharing their first tête-à-tête — a moment of unexpected warmth against a backdrop of brutality. And two episodes later, when Geordie and Will visit Leonard in prison and see him a shell of his former self — with the pale and hollowed-out look of a war camp prisoner — it’s Geordie who’s there to comfort and advise him. He calls upon his own time as a POW to school Leonard on surviving his solitary: "Don't let this place destroy you, because if you do, you'll be living this sentence for the rest of your life. You're only a prisoner when you lose hope."

The themes swirling through Series 6 intersect in so many ways, you’re left a bit breathless. It’s a series about imprisonment and isolation: physical and mental, literal and figurative. All the characters are shackled: by their memories, or their upbringing, or the restrictions that society places upon them. And no one more than Geordie. While Leonard keeps all the characters connected, it’s Geordie who gives the series its pulse and its drive. He takes us down an increasingly dark path. Early in Series 2, Geordie had let the trauma of his wartime service in Burma impact his handling of a case; it feels so very right to revisit that period in his life here. And as with Coulam at her best, the evolution of Geordie’s story-line is perfectly paced: stemming seemingly from unfolding events, and not from the willful demands of the writer’s pen. A murder involving Americans at a nearby air base causes Geordie to reflect on his old regiment; an episode later, Johnny Richards — a former soldier who was imprisoned in Burma alongside Geordie — appears on the scene, now a lawyer representing a set of suspects. His arrival unearths memories Geordie thought he’d long since buried; always a heavy drinker, his consumption starts to dominate his waking hours. A few episodes later, he arrives at his anniversary party so inebriated that he overturns a refreshment table. Ironically, the alcohol prompts him to bear his soul — obliquely revealing secrets that he’s long kept hidden: “[Cathy] saved me. She doesn’t know it, but she did” — but all his friends can see is a man out of control, humiliating his wife.

And an episode later, his torment starts to derail his professional life. When Johnny comes calling with a favor — because he’s gotten himself personally involved in an ongoing investigation — Geordie, by now deep in shame and guilt (over events not yet revealed to us, but made ever clearer by his actions and demeanor), feels powerless to say no. He compromises a case — for Geordie, the ultimate sin — because of wartime experiences he still can’t process. So much of Series 6 seems a response to events dramatized or referenced in the first few seasons — the sense of continuity is gratifying; every character seems to be wrestling with pent-up anger or remorse. It’s so perfect that when Cathy lays into Geordie after their anniversary party, she throws his Season 3 affair back in his face. The show moved on rather quickly from that, but for Cathy, it hasn’t been that simple, just as it hasn’t been so easy for Leonard to compartmentalize his homosexuality, for Will to truly connect with people, or for Geordie to blot out his wartime trauma.

Truth be told, Robson Green hadn’t had much to do since taking over top billing midway through Series 4; his Series 5 arc basically amounted to “mother-in-law issues.” Series 6 recognizes that if the lead detective is going to be top billed, you’d better give him the sort of story-line that the top-billed vicar benefited from in the first three seasons. In Series 1, Sidney had fixated on his wartime trauma, and the more he fixated, the more unnerving the series became; Geordie fills that precise role in Series 6. We watch him come unglued, and that mounting unease informs our viewing. We start to feel the weight of all that Geordie is experiencing, but not yet revealing, and the burden that places upon us — the way we watch him self-destruct without understanding why — is almost unbearable. This is Grantchester operating as it did in its first few years, when it wasn’t just the weekly mysteries that were clued; it was also the seasonal arc, the details of which were revealed to us, agonizingly, piece by piece. (It was a bit like making your way across a minefield.)

“You know, I rarely question the goodness of what I do,” Geordie confesses to Johnny after a particularly crafty murderer goes unpunished (shortly after Leonard is convicted): “It’s days like this: good man goes to jail, while a woman is killed and a criminal walks...” And Johnny reminds him, “Law and justice aren’t always the same, though, are they?” It’s pretty much the same conversation Sidney and Geordie had throughout Series 2, except that now Geordie had taken on Sidney’s role, questioning the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. He echoes Sidney in other ways. In the penultimate episode, his incarceration as a POW allows him to better relate to Leonard's cell mate, who's been accused of murder. (There’s a wonderful moment when Will starts to interrogate the prisoner, and Geordie tells him to step back: he has this one. It’s a reversal of the very premise of the series, now updated to account for the new vicar’s limitations: it’s the police detective who’s able to empathize in a way the vicar can’t.) And in the Series 6 finale, as Geordie ultimately comes to terms with his time in Burma (in a stunning piece of scripting by Jackson), as he’s forced to relive and confront the decades of shame he’s felt since praying that a fellow POW would be sacrificed first, so that he himself might be spared, Green tears at your heart, as Norton routinely did. It feels altogether fitting that the final prayer offered up in Series 6 isn’t from Will or Leonard, the men of the cloth, but from Geordie: the one who has no use for God, except when he needs Him the most.

And as a result, Grantchester Series 6 is no longer about a vicar who uses his knowledge of human behavior to help solve murders; it’s about a police detective who has found his calling, but is still searching for his soul. And that very concept returns us to the early years of Grantchester. “Crime-solving comes easy to Sidney Chambers,” I wrote back in 2015: “It's life that's hard to master.” The same can be said of Geordie in Series 6. As I noted in that same essay, part of what made Grantchester so novel and so rich was its delicate balancing act. Series 6, after a few off-kilter seasons, rediscovers that balance, and surprisingly, one way it does so is by finally settling on a replacement for James Norton. Or two replacements, as it were. Oh, Will Davenport might have succeeded Sidney as vicar, but as it turns out, the one capable of linking all the characters isn’t Will, but Leonard. And the tortured one with a talent for solving crimes — but living under such a dark cloud that he wounds the people dearest to him — is Geordie. As Geordie assumes Sidney’s Series 1 story-line — reliving and suffering the effects of his wartime guilt — Robson Green assumes star status not merely by virtue of being first billed, but by becoming the spiritual successor to Sidney Chambers. And with that seemingly simple but altogether staggering transformation, Grantchester is reborn.

Want more? I take a look at two of 2021's best, Back to Life and The Other Two here. Or check out an essay called "Private Faces," in praise of two spectacular series that emerged in the fall of 2020, Roadkill and Life, and another entitled "Unwilling Victims," taking a look at three recent series by and about women: The Trial of Christine Keeler, Deadwater Fell and Flesh and Blood. I offer up The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching, Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss, and one of my latest, inspired by the death of my puppy Czerny, The 10 Most Comforting TV Episodes About Death.

If you like in-depth looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of of Criminal Minds Season 8, Judging Amy Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Doctor Who Series 8, Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent, ill-judged Netflix miniseries), and fourteen essays devoted to all the seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. Or if you prefer comedies, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, Maude Season 2, Newhart Season 7, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; serve up my 10 Best Episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Designing Women, WKRP in Cincinnati and Kate & Allie; pen an appreciation of Mike & Molly; and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries: not (necessarily) the best episodes, but the best whodunnits.


  1. I really enjoyed this latest series. It did lose its way a bit last year, but like you, I felt this new series was a return to form. Wonderful essay.

    1. Thanks, Amy. It’s funny: as I look at my blog recently, I seem to be writing up a whole lot of ongoing shows. Such a far cry from when I was mostly concerned with silver age television. But there’s been so much I’ve wanted to write about recently, and what I saw as the rebirth of 'Grantchester' was chief among them.

  2. This is splendid, Tommy. Like you, I didn't take to Tom Brittney in season 5, and although I was aware of it, I couldn't put my finger on the reasons why. But I think you nailed it. I thought he worked well in season 6, and Green was outstanding.

    1. So nice to see you turn up here again, Shawn. And so glad you enjoyed my reasoning. Honestly, this essay went through more drafts: it was like figuring out a mystery, and although I won’t pretend I came up with “the only possible explanation,“ I came up with an answer that satisfies me, if that makes any sense. I was shocked how invested in the show I grew again, and Philip felt the same. But figuring out why was a challenge, and I really had to go back and rewatch parts of the first three seasons to see what it is I had so loved, and how they had managed to duplicate the same effects, but in such different ways. It’s so fun to watch a series get back to its essence. I know we’ve talked before about Murphy Brown, which also had a resurgence in its sixth season. (And yes, at some point I still hope to write about that.)

  3. Yeah, I think I was firmly in the camp of having lost interest in the show too, so I'm fascinated to hear that it's found its feet again. I'm not sure whether a change in focal character is what scuppered me, or whether I was just too impatient to give Will a chance to develop into someone likeable. Sidney was such a tough act to follow. That character and Norton's performance were what set the show apart from the dozens of run of the mill detective shows we see, and replacing him was always going to be tough. But maybe it's time to see what I've been missing.

    1. I would absolutely check it out. I won’t pretend you see the turnaround instantly. We became intrigued only in the final scene of the first episode, which made it clear that the Leonard story-line was going to be the series’ continuing subplot, which seemed like a smart and fascinating move. By episode 2, you definitely see the change in how they’re handling Will’s character, and by episode 3, Leonard’s story-line heats up. I would give it three episodes, and you’ll know by then if it’s for you. :)