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Lamenting the end of 'Foyle's War,' a TV masterpiece

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
.@marymacTV explains why she loves 'Foyle's War'

We have been told that the eighth season of “Foyle’s War,” which made its U.S. debut on the streaming service Acorn TV this week, will be the last. ITV, which produces the series in Britain, has said it, and creator-writer Anthony Horowitz has concurred.

Some of us, well me anyway, refuse to believe it. For one thing, we’ve heard it before. ITV canceled the show after its fifth season, only to bring it back because of popular demand. Horowitz subsequently announced that Season 6 would be his last, yet here we are.

Personally, I proudly choose to be a Foyle’s Finale Denier for a simple reason: I don’t want it to end. Ever.

The world I cover as a critic may be bursting at the seams with the exquisite and the innovative, the mind-blowing and the groundbreaking, but sustained excellence is still hard to come by. But “Foyle’s War” started out great and just keeps getting better.

I should know. I have watched the entire series three times in four years. That’s 25 episodes, each nearly 90 minutes, from the first seven seasons plus three episodes from the new eighth season.

OK, I’ve watched the three new ones only twice, but that’s still more than 120 hours of my one and only life that I will never get back.

And I would do it again. Will, undoubtedly, do it again.

The three episodes of Season 8 are just as good, if not better, than any that preceded them, which doesn’t seem possible or even quite fair. Even the best shows clunk, on occasion, become repetitive or veer outlandish — sometimes for entire seasons. But Horowitz and his team, including and especially stars Michael Kitchen and Honeysuckle Weeks, have neither flagged nor faltered.

As a fan, I watch “Foyle’s War” repeatedly and obsessively for the same reason I reread Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, Edna O’Brien, Jean Kerr, Margaret Atwood or “To Kill a Mockingbird” repeatedly and obsessively — because it transports, enthralls, enriches and comforts me.

As a critic, I watch it because it is so unbelievably good at what it does, and I never tire of trying to figure out why, exactly.

The world met Det. Chief Supt. Christopher Foyle (Kitchen) in 2002 when “Foyle’s War” filled the spot in the ITV lineup left vacant by the long-running and popular “Inspector Morse” series. Created by Horowitz, a successful novelist and TV writer, “Foyle’s War” views World War II Britain through the eyes of a laconic, insightful and endlessly honorable police detective. A World War I veteran, Foyle knows the horrors of battle, but he longs to join the war effort only to be told repeatedly he is needed on the homefront, more specifically the charming coastal town of Hastings.

Which is, of course, roiling with crime, war-related and otherwise. Aided by his young driver Sam (Weeks) and, in early seasons, his sergeant Paul Milner (Anthony Howell), Foyle takes on foes of every type — Nazis, anthrax, looters, black-marketeers, spies, corrupt British officials, you name it — in stories that remain vividly true to the times while showcasing a wide variety of modern social issues, including homophobia, racism and domestic assault.

Season 5 ended with V-E Day; by Season 7, Foyle, and then Sam, were working for MI5. Set against a nation struggling with postwar shortages and political dissatisfaction — “It feels like we didn’t win the war” is often expressed — the stories grew increasingly relevant. The final three, if final they be, deal with, among other things, international oil interests, anti-Semitism, terrorism, consumerism and the long reach of war.

There is, for the record, no traditional finale moment at the end, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Although its U.S. premiere on Acorn, which is fighting PBS and BBC America to become a player in the British television game, reflects a logistical modernity, the series’ main strength is its determination to remain true to itself. Though other detectives and lead characters twist and shuffle through addiction, attraction, corruption and a generally fluid morality, Christopher Foyle doggedly remains a fixed point in an uncertain universe.

Generous to those facing social censure and other hardships, his rules are simple and adamant: There is no excuse for murder, or for harming those who can’t defend themselves, not even the desperate requirements of war.

In recent seasons, Sam has played an increasing role in the narrative, growing from sprightly enthusiasm to self-assured and competent adulthood; in Season 8, she is as big a player as Foyle. But as good as Weeks and all the supporting players are, there’s an easy answer to why “Foyle’s War” is one of television’s masterpieces: Michael Kitchen.

The series both revolves around and ignores its main character. Several early seasons deal with him as the father of a young pilot, but otherwise we know little of his personal life. He likes to fly fish; he is a widower who deeply loved his wife.

Occasionally there is a flicker of interest in a woman (never, mercifully, Sam) or the memory of an early romance. But Foyle is who he is: a good solid detective.

Simple words, and common enough, but no one does more with them than Kitchen. Though admirably and patiently paced to reflect place and time, “Foyle’s War” covers a lot of ground, in each episode and as a series.

The often-violent murders aside, the timeline of the series lends itself to dramatic, and nostalgic, histrionics — the series opens with the murder of a German married to an Englishman after a local pub is bombed — but Horowitz is as scrupulous with his psychology as he is with his history. Every episode illustrates, in some way, the best and the worst of his native land, which he can do with ease because his lead actor is more interested in being part of the scenery than chewing it.

Kitchen is a deceptively expressive actor, and his performance as Foyle is a master class in the power of subtlety. Famous for the irregular request of less dialogue, he relies almost entirely on the physical, including his extraordinarily communicative face — the lowered eyelid, the lip bitten from the inside, the brow furrowed in mock surprise — small but characteristic movement, and the power of vocal syncopation. When Foyle hits his consonants hard, someone is in trouble.

Like many fictional detectives, he is perpetually underestimated (until, of course, he isn’t), and Kitchen makes it easy to see why. While other men exhibit more traditional alpha male tendencies — Foyle is often dressed down by his “superiors,” in the force and the British class system — Foyle lowers his head, quirks his mouth and stays silent.

Until, having quietly collected all the evidence everyone else missed, he brings the hammer down.

The lines of dialogue in which Kitchen speaks passionately and in complete sentences could probably fit on two pages, but it doesn’t matter: His Foyle is one of the most powerfully persuasive characters on television.

Which is why I am not ashamed to beg. Piteously, publicly and for the record. Bring back Foyle. We need him too much to lose him now.

Twitter: @marymacTV

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'Foyle's War'

Where: Acorn.TV

When: Any time

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