Television review: ‘Case Histories’

If for no other reason than that you get to spend six hours with Jason Isaacs, I am going to recommend “Case Histories,” the latest British import to take up residence under the banner of “Masterpiece Mystery” Sunday on PBS. It is not the only reason to recommend it, but it is by itself sufficient; indeed, it overwhelms any small arguments in its disfavor.

Most people who know Isaacs’ work will have seen him in a long blond wig as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies — and that is many more people, certainly, than saw him in Showtime’s great “Brotherhood” (2006-08), in which he played an Irish American Rhode Island gangster, a sociopath not without his good points. Here, as Edinburgh private detective Jackson Brodie, he gets to play a good guy not without what some people would describe as bad points.

Brodie is a man whose need to do right has gotten him kicked off the police force — some old colleagues regard him as “a nutter” — whose resources he nevertheless continues to employ, courtesy reluctantly accommodating Detective Constable Louise Munroe (Amanda Abbington). Munroe, who regards him both with trust and expectation of disappointment, calls him “the most irritating man north of Hadrian’s Wall and a better cop” than any of his critics — which is to say they might be in love. They are, at least, lovely to watch together.

The series, which adapts three novels by Kate Atkinson, follows Brodie as he stumbles in and out of cases that are not so much brought to his door as crash through it or are there for him to trip over. (Ashley Pharoah, who co-created “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes.” adapted the first two, and Peter Harness, who scripted the third series of “Wallander,” adapted the third.) These cases, some of them trickily interlaced, come variously cold, warm and hot and involve a degree of coincidence that might have given Charles Dickens pause. Whether such contrivances, or conveniences, are hidden or highlighted by the easy naturalism of the dialogue and performances, I cannot quite decide. A little of both probably, depending on the viewer’s mood, but the crimes are in any case secondary to the character studies.

Many of the interweaving story lines involve missing parents or children, reflecting an incident from Brodie’s own past, to which we flash back perhaps overmuch and which colors his relations with his clients and his family: “You have to keep people you love right where you can see them, so you can protect them,” he says in a moment of stress, thinking only partly of his young daughter (the quite astonishing Millie Innes), who may soon be torn from his orbit. Traveling the darkly picturesque city to a soundtrack long on Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch, he is guided by the authority of his feelings rather than the dictates of any sort of good sense. It isn’t clear, in fact, that he makes any money at all, though he does manage to maintain an assistant (Zawe Ashton), smart and mouthy in the tradition but with nice attitudinal twists.


Isaacs, who will be taking a crack at American major-league broadcast television when NBC’s “Awake” awakens after the New Year — and who recorded audio books for Atkinson’s novels before being cast in the series — is a quiet, casually funny actor, whose bearing suggests a concentrated reserve of power he does not necessarily want you to see. He’s convincing when he needs to get physical, but he also takes a lot of punishment, and when he does he doesn’t recover from it immediately in the usual cause-sans-effect way of TV heroes but limps and hobbles and generally looks terrible. The face of goodness in a wicked world would naturally bear a lot of scrapes and scratches.