Van Der Valk–A perfect police procedural mystery series in a year of great TV

Review by C.J. Bunce

In a year that saw great dramas like The Offer, fantasy series like Rings of Power, prime science fiction seasons of Strange New Worlds, The Book of Boba Fett, and The Orville, ground-breaking superhero shows like Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, and She-Hulk, supernatural shows like Archive 81 and Resident Evil, limited series like The Offer and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, and mysteries like Guilt and The Resort, a series that stops you in your tracks must be pretty spectacular.  But if you look to iTV and PBS in 2022 you will find Van Der Valk.  That title may not sound stylish, sexy, and intriguing, but the show is.  The first season arrived in the States in 2020 and the second season has arrived for Fall on PBS Passport, with three new feature-length episodes that are pretty much guaranteed to reel you in and leave you wishing for more.  You’ll probably care about these characters like you’ve been watching it for years.

Series star Marc Warren could–and should–be the next Dirty Harry, Luther, Jimmy Perez, Aurelio Zen, Columbo, Magnum, or Jessica Fletcher.  He’s the next Greg House, MD, and Sherlock.  He’s each of them and all of them rolled into one.  And his laid back style on the surface, coupled with his edge and devotion to his job, should make him a candidate for your own best TV cop of the 21st century so far.  Warren plays Commissaris Piet (pronounced “Pete”) Van der Valk, Amsterdam’s best detective.

Dutch noir?  Amsterdam is a surprising, striking setting for a British crime show.  The unique treatment of vice crimes–as in they aren’t always crimes in the Netherlands–creates unlimited opportunities for a new genre of storytelling for English-speaking audiences.  Most of the law of pursuing criminals will be familiar to both UK and US audiences, and yet van der Valk is able to get into places he wouldn’t get into here, and have contacts that would be underworld here and aren’t in his jurisdiction.

Warren’s star power–make that rock star style–makes for the perfect, nuanced character.  Credit good, tight writing for half that, and the other half for Warren himself.  He’s starred and guest-starred in dozens of series and in each one he’s a stand-out, most famously in Doctor Who and Life on Mars, State of Play and Band of Brothers, and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, just to name a few.

Created by author Nicolas Freeling in a series of novels, Van Der Valk is a complex and refreshingly real hero–a man with unpredictable pockets of knowledge and insight.  He’s neither angry or brash.  He’s likable, distancing himself from everyone in part because of the sting of losing his wife, he intentionally avoids giving any praise to his squad’s newest recruit, but grows to begin reaching out and embracing the world around him, slowly.  He is haunted by this past, yet it empowers him to focus on the crime in front of him.  But unlike other series with similar constructs, like Shetland and Hinterland, he’s already breaking out of the mold.

The series hails from showrunner Chris Murray, who has served as a writer on series from Sea of Souls to Midsomer Murders.  The popular novels, written primarily in the 1960s, have been produced into TV series before, in 1972, 1977, and 1991 (you don’t need to have seen these series, which are unrelated to this contemporary version).  Location shooting in Murray’s series makes Amsterdam look as stylishly European as Zen’s Italy and exotic like any James Bond movie, incorporating the area’s natural and man-made beauty with scenes in Season 1 from the famous Rijksmuseum, the American Hotel, and even the Tommy Hilfiger corporate headquarters.  Season 2 finds Van der Valk at The Hague and Amsterdam’s Central Station and site of the Battles of Schooneveld.

The show’s recurring theme is “Only in Amsterdam,” and the titles, unlike every other series, actually have great meaning for the story.  This season it’s “Plague on Amsterdam,” “Blood in Amsterdam,” and “Payback in Amsterdam,” with stories about gentrification, blood diamonds, and sex trafficking, folded into a strange murder near a distant windmill, a diamond broker CEO’s death after a heart transplant, and a cellist stalked and killed after a performance.  Did I mention tight writing?  Look forward to fake-outs and twists, and yet mysteries with enough clues that you may be able to figure it all out along with Van der Valk.

Warren is the perfect lead for these stories as the police force commissaris, and he’s joined by Maimie McCoy (All Creatures Great and Small) as Inspector Lucienne Hassell; Luke Allen-Gale (Dominion, Captain America: The First Avenger) as the always-eating sergeant, and Elliot Barnes-Worrell (Ready Player One) as the squad’s newest recruit with a secret past.  Emma Fielding (Cranford) is Van der Valk’s boss (who gets a new dog this season), and Darrell D’Silva (Wrath of Man) is a unique pathologist for the genre in a genre with plenty of oddball coroners.

The style is everywhere, from cinematography that echoes 1960s cop movies, like Bullitt and Dirty Harry, to fashions and hair styles, and a city that has everything modern.

Even better than our long string of British TV recommendations (find them all recounted here), and even better than the stylish and brilliant master class in crime TV Zen, Van Der Valk should be considered must-watch television.  Catch both seasons now on PBS Passport.


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