'Grantchester' on PBS splendidly combines crime and contemplation

Like a great sermon, the deceptive depth of PBS' British mystery-drama 'Grantchester' catches you unawares

America's deepening addiction to British drama is lovingly enabled by Sunday night's premiere of "Grantchester," the latest installment of PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery!"

This tale of a young vicar who dabbles in detection checks so many "trending" boxes — period details! gorgeous location! forays into important social issues at a time of great change! — it would seem that it might have been bioengineered in an underground PBS development lab, if it weren't an ITV original and so guilelessly entertaining.


"Grantchester": A Jan. 17 review of the PBS series "Grantchester" referred to poet Rupert Brooke as a world war survivor. Brooke died during World War I. —

Based on a series of novels by James Runcie, "Grantchester" adds to the crime procedural with a nice, if predictable, tension between the secular and spiritual worlds. Also a protagonist who's super-dreamy and slightly unavailable, which absolutely never hurts.

James Norton (last seen, almost impossibly, as the brutal villain in "Happy Valley") plays Sidney Chambers, a young Anglican priest who, having survived World War II, now heads the parish of Grantchester, a historically sylvan town (see please the works of that other dreamy world-war survivor, Rupert Brooke) a mile away from Cambridge.

A lover of jazz, whiskey and socio-religious tolerance, Sidney is a very modern sort of vicar, which puts him at perpetual odds with his formidable housekeeper, Mrs. McGuire (Tessa Peake-Jones), and, in the first episode, in the middle of a suicide that may have been murder. Following up on this suggestion, Sidney meets up with Geordie Keating (Robson Green), a terse and tough-minded police detective who doesn't think much of the curious curate until he realizes that people will say things to a handsome clergyman that they won't to a copper.

And so a beautiful friendship, and a narrative construct, is born.

With its restrained dialogue, thatched roofs and "fields all golden show" (it is remarkably sunny in this bit of England), "Grantchester" lulls more than it grabs. But despite its village setting and inevitable assortment of local characters, it isn't quite a cozy. Though far from a classically "broken" hero, Sidney lives in the shadow of the violence he has seen, and perpetrated, as well as his feelings for the lovely Amanda (Morven Christie), whom the British class system keeps just out of reach.

The action moves between crime and contemplation, the cosmopolitan and the countrified, and, if the mysteries are a bit of a bust, they allow the characters to address all manner of social issues along the way. Sidney brings a progressive Christianity to his role as both priest and detective whether dealing with issues of race, sexuality or class. Meanwhile, Geordie, a man of facts over faith, keeps the show grounded in actual police work, the working class and reality.

There's no denying the influence of other shows, from "The Mentalist" to "Father Brown" with bits of "Foyle's War" as well. But "Grantchester" is very much its own creation.

If the tone initially seems, like the weather, a bit too blue sky, it has moments of deceptive depth. As with a good sermon, you may think you're only barely listening until you realize you're fully immersed.


'Masterpiece Mystery!'

Where: KOCE

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for violence)

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