Review: ‘The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco’ brings the WWII code-breakers across the pond

Television Critic

The code-cracking sleuths of ITV’s 2013 series “The Bletchley Circle” bring their formidable skills to the U.S. for a new round of crime solving in “The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco.”

Set three years and 5000 miles apart from its predecessor, the eight-episode series, which premieres Thursday on streaming service BritBox, takes place in 1956 San Francisco.

Despite the changes, the drama’s returning and new characters face many of the same circumstances as they did back in England. They’re all women who deciphered enemy code during WWII and therefore helped end the war.


But it’s peacetime; the men have returned home, and now these accomplished women are expected to return to more “traditional” female roles. The excitement of defeating an enemy versus domesticity and typist pools? There’s no contest.

Bletchley’s leading ladies defy the status quo, deploying their code-cracking skills to pursue a murderer who’s hitting close to home, despite the dissuasion of male law enforcement officials and disapproving husbands. After all, there are clothes to iron and dinners to prepare. How does a gal fit solving murderous rampages into her busy schedule and still have a drink waiting for hubby when he arrives home at 5? She does most of it in secret.

“The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco” is the ITV and BBC streaming service’s first original series, and although the first four episodes available for review present a compelling murder mystery, the unique plot of cryptographers-turned-detectives isn’t unique anymore. That novel premise, and the nostalgic charm of the 2013 series, is hard to duplicate, especially since there’s been an abundance of other wonderfully crafted streaming series dramatizing the challenges of mid-century women and nonconformists, including “The Crown,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and “A Very English Scandal.” Reliving that post-war era doesn’t feel as fresh as it did when the first “Bletchley” aired on PBS.

Though this round of sleuthing isn’t as full of surprises as the series set in the U.K., it does effectively play with a different set of era-specific hurdles unique to the U.S.

The show starts in England with Jean (Julie Graham) and Millie (Rachael Stirling) — the show’s returning characters — struggling to find meaning in their jobs and life. Then they read of a homicide in San Francisco that’s eerily similar to the unsolved, wartime slaying of a former colleague.

Once overseas, they find Americans Iris (Crystal Balint) and Hailey (Chanelle Peloso), cohorts in code-breaking. Together they set out to solve the riddles left behind by a what appears to be a serial killer, or is it?

“The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco,” which also stars Jennifer Spence (“Van Helsing”) and Ben Cotton (“The X-Files”), folds timely American issues into the mix. For instance, it’s the dawn of the civil rights movement. Iris and her family exemplify the struggles and dangers faced by African Americans who remained silent and those who spoke out against systemic racism.

In the series, a city-planned gentrification points toward bloody changes in the Fillmore district and the move/push of the black community toward Oakland.

The fallout of Japanese American internment is also part of the story here, as is the dawning of the Cold War — all issues that feel depressingly timely in 2018.

But it’s not all heavy. Dialogue sprinkled with of-the-era humor and a colorful backdrop of brightly painted, affordable Victorian houses and hilly inclines traversed by cable cars rather than Google buses adds to the retro whimsy here. It’s San Francisco before the great tech boom that’s made the city untouchable for most Americans.

“The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco” isn’t as rich and meaningful as its predecessor, but it’s evocative and entertaining, with a little murder thrown in for good measure.

‘The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco’

Where: Britbox

When: Any time, starting Thursday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)