Just when you thought you didn’t need another gruff cop, haunted by visions, along comes the titular John River of BBC One’s newest crime drama. He’s terse, unsociable and talks to imaginary dead people. It’s a familiar, perhaps even tired character at first look, but River, created by Abi Morgan (Suffragette) and with an impressive central performance from Stellan Skarsgård, somehow manages to feels like a breath of fresh air.
River is a haunted man. His partner, DS Jackie ‘Stevie’ Stevenson (Nicola Walker), has just been gunned down in the street in front of him, but that doesn’t stop him talking to her as if she was still alive. Of course the manifest he sees is just in his head – she can’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know, which means he’s got the heavy task of figuring out who killed her all on his own. Other victims appear to him too, mostly those whose death he is investigating, but it’s Eddie Marsan’s Victorian murderer who really stands out. He’s the dark voice in River’s head, full of hatred and self-loathing, and his inclusion adds a nice twist on the trope of the haunted detective. River doesn’t see these people because he can’t let go, he sees them because he’s suffering from some kind of mental affliction.It’s River’s mindset that’s the focus here and much like The Killing, River devotes a lot of time to showing the full force of grief; it permeates everything. Through his imagined conversations with Stevie, we get a strong sense of their relationship – she liked to banter and berate him for his social oddities, he loved to listen. It’s a strange way to get to know a pairing, one half already deceased, but it’s used to full effect in the last episode when Stevie’s death is played out in River’s mind. Throughout the rest of the series, we’ve only glimpsed that fateful night through grainy CCTV footage, but as he finally replays the evening, saying everything he wished he’d said to her, it becomes so much more poignant. We may know exactly what’s going to happen, but it’s still incredibly moving.
As you’d expect from a show which deals so intensely with the aftermath of death it is often very sad but instead of wallowing in despair, it manages to feel oddly hopeful. This is down in huge part to Skarsgård who imbues River with such humanity that even at his most miserable, he’s still someone you root for, not just someone you pity. It helps that, at heart, he isn’t a misanthrope. He doesn’t talk to the dead because he can no longer stand the living, it’s because interacting with the imaginary comes free of any social anxiety. His dance sequence (yes, really) in the final episode is a powerful moment. It’s so rewarding to see River finally let go.As a crime drama, River also manages to keep you on your toes, slowly revealing more of Stevie’s character and backstory as River desperately tries to figure out why someone would want her dead. Walker’s Stevie is just mysterious enough to keep you guessing, her quick wit and brave face surely hiding something and the resolution nicely avoids cliché. It’s a welcome change to the usual dirty cop storyline.
Though it may sound like something you’ve seen a thousand times before, River is not your average crime drama. It’s smart and considered, giving a detailed look at a troubled mindset, though never veering into darkness for the sake of it.
River is released on DVD and Blu-ray through Arrow Films on 30 November 2015.