Review by C.J. Bunce
We’re always on the lookout for the next great British/Irish/Scottish/UK police procedural or mystery, after the next Life on Mars or Ashes to Ashes, Hinterland or Shetland, Marchlands or Lightfields, Zen or Quirke, or, of course, Sherlock. So the pay-channel Starz releasing a late-year mystery series called Dublin Murders was going to get our attention. Filmed in Belfast and Dublin, with a noir sensibility–dark places, mysterious characters, and murder–the series has the potential to be a good detective series. Billed as an “eight-part mystery series with a taproot that drops deep down into Ireland’s past, foreshadows the present and brings insight to its future,” the story follows Sarah Greene as Cassie Maddox and Killian Scott as Rob Reilly, homicide detectives on the trail of the murderer of a school girl. The murder was similar–too similar–to a murder in the city’s past.
Maddox and Reilly appear appealing enough at first. They share a secret of the past that would get them fired had anyone found out: Reilly isn’t really Reilly, but the alter ego of the sole survivor of the crime years ago that resulted in two missing friends, never to be found. Unfortunately he’s a witness who can’t remember, and by all accounts he shouldn’t be involved with this investigation because of his clear conflict of interest. Merged with his pursuit of the person behind the missing kids and the recent murder is a story of Maddox’s history catching up with her. As a child her parents were killed in an auto accident, and to deal with it mentally she invented an imaginary friend she named Lexie. As an undercover cop, she took on the name Lexie as her alter ego. Now she and one of her former colleagues stumble upon another murder, a woman who looks just like Cassie. And surprise: her name is Lexie. Always waiting for the possibility that we’ve stumbled into an unreliable narrator series, ultimately that’s not the case, the woman was real and not something we’re seeing through Maddox’s imagination. But the series stumbles for other reasons.
Based on the first two novels of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels, In the Woods and The Likeness, a key problem is combining the stories from two books to make into one season of television–stories that have little to do with each other. Both cops have these common stories involving dual personas so it’s easy to see how someone thought it might work. But it doesn’t. The first three episodes develop the characters, but suddenly they lose their personalities. The quiet, likeable, and sympathetic Reilly becomes a jerk, a supremely angry and mean protagonist pushing away Maddox and everyone else and leaving the audience with little to care about from his plot thread. Maddox has the same collision of character–once admirable and mostly by-the-book, she turns into a nasty character, bitter and horrible to those who care about her. As Reilly becomes trapped in a development of his own making, Maddox agrees to a job with her former colleague, a preposterous undercover operation impersonating the deceased Lexie in order to discover her murderer.
It’s all unfortunate. Actors Greene and Scott seem to have the right chemistry to take a series forward into a second season, yet the writing can’t keep up to the quality of the acting and strong production values. These aren’t buddy cops–by the end they hate each other, so a future for the characters seems unlikely (despite four books that keep the characters going). The preposterous situational scenarios–cops doing things no real cop anywhere would do–feel like the writers have never watched a police procedural before. The noir pacing is on point, but no story can be enjoyable with protagonists the audience can’t cheer for. It almost takes a turn for the supernatural, something like we saw in Requiem (reviewed here), but this series opts to stick with the real world. This means the suspense of the series is left unsatisfied, since the strangest–and arguably most compelling–elements (Who is Lexie? What happened to Adam?) are never explained. Four supporting characters are worth returning to: cops played by Eugene O’Hare, Moe Dunford, and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, with Conleth Hill as a gruff, stereotypically mouthy DCI-type superintendent (any or all of them could have been easily swapped to add some women characters to the show).
The result is a series that has some of the right elements, but without the foundation of a solid story to support them and bring them together. The series consists of only eight episodes instead of the typical ten, which becomes a relief by the final two chapters. The big reveal–the murderer in the present day of the story–is a surprise and well handled, but straining in the believability sense. Reilly’s past story is sort of punted away with no resolution. But Reilly finally gets a satisfying comeuppance as a result. Reilly’s character seems irredeemable and not worthy of a second season, but there may be enough potential left for Maddox with new writers and an entirely new story if a second season is ordered by the network.
There are not too many shows in this genre newly released by any network, so Starz subscribers were going to watch this. But viewership doesn’t always translate to viewers willing to come back for more. A second season is in discussions but hasn’t been announced yet.
If you’ve missed the above-mentioned series, take the time to watch those first, as this would only be recommended after you’ve seen all those much better British staples of the genre. This one is closer to The Silence, The Five, The Missing, Thirteen, Broadchurch, and Collateral. Dublin Murders has enough to get us to try the first episode of a second season if it arrives, but barely. All eight episodes of Dublin Murders are now streaming only on Starz.