Review by C.J. Bunce
The hit British detective series Van der Valk returned this year for its third season on ITV and PBS in the States. Marc Warren is back as Commissaris Piet (pronounced “Pete”) Van der Valk, Amsterdam’s best detective. It’s only the latest of several adaptations of Nicolas Freeling’s series of novels. This Van der Valk, from showrunner and writer Chris Murray, seemed to pride itself on staying current with the times in its first two seasons–some of the best British TV mysteries you’ll ever watch–and that currency continued this year. But that’s also what contributes to this season taking a step backward in its storytelling, characterizations, and intrigue. Six episodes covering three movie-length stories are now streaming on PBS and PBS Passport.
The title may not sound stylish, sexy, and intriguing, but the show was. Van der Valk’s former girlfriend Lena (Loes Haverkort) returned this season as a recurring character, but Piet just kept pushing her away–and that’s no fun. Without the romance the series also lost some of its fun, an element every great mystery needs to succeed.
The subjects of the mysteries were simply odd. The first, “Freedom in Amsterdam,” leaned into the Dutch performance sport of freerunning. Blending it with a story about drug smuggling, it spent too much time on something Brits and Americans probably aren’t all that interested in, but assumed we’d be familiar with (something close to parkour?). The second mystery, “Redemption in Amsterdam,” mixed a museum cultural repatriation story (a common plot re-introduced from the 1990s) and mixed it into the most interesting storyline of the season, following up on a cold case Van Der Valk worked on years ago. Daisy Badger (The Sandman) plays a girl, now grown-up, who confessed to burning her family years ago, and it’s up to Piet to determine if the police force and courts were right in seeing her convicted. Simone van Dusseldorp directed a story by Maria Ward for this mystery, and viewers can only hope they find a way to tackle more cold cases next season.
The third mystery, “Magic in Amsterdam,” finds Piet and his team in an almost Halloween special episode, as a participant in a magical ritual subsequently dies. Piet keeps his mind open to the possibility of real demons, but anyone who has followed his character knows he’s just playing us. Maybe the problem with the choice of these three stories is that viewers simply don’t get enough episodes to appreciate these kinds of trope-y tales. They might work better if nestled into seven other episodes with more realistic cop pursuits.
All of those things that reeled in viewers for the first two seasons seemed to take a backseat: striking travelogue real-world settings, the unique treatment of vice crimes–as in they aren’t always crimes in the Netherlands–Piet really struggling with some crisis of the conscience. The closest is with Lena, who he simply ignores… until he flips a switch and doesn’t.
Warren’s star power just didn’t get enough interesting writing to support him this round. Maimie McCoy (All Creatures Great and Small) returns as Inspector Lucienne Hassell, along with Emma Fielding (Cranford) as Van der Valk’s boss with a dog, and Darrell D’Silva’s (Wrath of Man) oddball pathologist, but glaringly absent characters from past seasons just vanished: 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. Both of these characters added a lot to the series, especially to the humor. They were replaced this season by Azan Ahmed as the easily jostled Eddie Suleman, and Django-Chan Reeves as new recruit Citra.
Unfortunately Van der Valk knocked itself down the top echelon of our ongoing list of British TV recommendations with this season (find them all recounted here), but it’s still six episodes worth watching. Even with some less than stellar escapades, Van der Valk should be considered must-watch television. Marc Warren is a talent even when the writing doesn’t catch up to him. Catch all three seasons now in the U.S. on PBS and PBS Passport.