Netflix review: Rebus

In the wake of the considerable pleasure I took in watching the BBC TV series, Luther (review further down the page) on Netflix, I went ahead and tried a different British detective show, a Scottish series based on the Rebus novels by Ian Rankin, of which I’ve read a few.

The main surprise awaiting the unsuspecting viewer is that the series, as packaged and presented on Netflix, is actually two series.

The original four episodes, from the year 2000, starred the actor John Hannah (whom you may know from the Spartacus cable series, if you watch that sort of thing). It hewed fairly close to the original books, presenting the dark, gritty world of lower-class Edinburgh, where Det. Inspector John Rebus works. Hannah’s Rebus is a tortured man, plagued by inner rages and a serious drinking problem (not the kind that TV writers add to a character as amusing color, but the kind that messes up both his job and his family life). The detective often makes serious mistakes, and his job security is shaky.

An interesting element is a few suggestions that Rebus retains a tentative hold on some kind of religious faith.

Then comes Season Two, which first aired in 2006. Not only do we have a new production team, there’s a new cast, new sets, and a new, slicker look. Even when Rebus stays in the slums, they look less depressing, more bright and airy. The Edinburgh of this series is one you’re tempted to visit. I wonder if the Scottish Tourist Board didn’t apply pressure to make that change.

The new Rebus is actor Ken Stott, who plays a more blustery, know-it-all Rebus, a master detective who’s rarely wrong. In the first episode of the second season he was almost alarmingly cheerful. Nearly elfin. I began to hate him.

Fortunately, the rest of the episodes returned more closely to the books. Nevertheless, there’s a formulaic feel here. It looks as if the producers wanted to turn Rebus into Inspector Morse, with a new, much prettier Sgt. Siobhan Clarke (who was a regular character but not a regular partner in the earlier episodes) taking the place of Sgt. Lewis.

There are no surprises in the three seasons of Ken Stott Rebuses. Everything is according to the TV detectives’ playbook. Immigrants (generally Muslims) are never criminals, but white racism is a serious danger to the public. Industrialists, even if they aren’t guilty of this particular murder, are always guilty of something. The church is universally corrupt. “Tony Blair” is a curse word, as is “Haliburton.”

The best thing about the series, really, is the performance of Claire Price as Siobhan Clarke. She has beautiful eyes which radiate intelligence and empathy. It was also nice to see Jennifer Black in the role of Rebus’s superior, Det. Superintendent Gill (pronounced Jill) Templer. I hadn’t seen her since she played the lawyer’s lovely wife in my favorite movie, Local Hero, back in the ’80s.

Should you watch Rebus? I don’t really recommend it. The first season is good, but depressing. The second through fourth seasons are uninspired.

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