Clive Owen is, as they say, a tall glass of water. Ruggedly handsome, with sleepy, sad eyes, a deep rich voice, and cool and charisma to burn, he seems cut from a classic, if anachronistic, Hollywood mold. Combining a sort of arched-eyebrow knowingness with a heavy-browed brooding vulnerability, he is one part dashing leading man, two parts smoldering noir hunk.
I’m not sure the current film world quite knows what to do with him – though he is generally great in everything he’s been in, he always seems slightly out of place or time, like he just time warped from a late’40s noir that would star Robert Mitchum or William Holden. Perhaps the proper vehicles for Owen’s talents and persona just don’t exist anymore, though some films have come close – Sin City and the vastly underrated Duplicity come to mind.
So it’s no surprise that his best work, and the role that catapulted him to fame in the UK, came in a millennial British mystery series, in which he plays a brilliant but brooding, sharp but tortured detective. Second Sight belongs to the same rich tradition of British mystery series as Prime Suspect, or Cracker, or any of the superior police procedurals that wash up on US shores on PBS. Conceived and written by veteran TV writer Paula Milne, Second Sight offers few actual genre surprises, but boasts a central character so richly developed (in such a short space) that he almost deserves equal footing with Helen Mirren’s iconic Jane Tennison.
Like Tennison, Ross Tanner is a brilliant DCI with London homicide. In the titular first “series” (oh the confusion trying to get around what to call each installment of these things, which are called series in the UK, but are more like TV movies by US sensibilities), Tanner is called in to investigate the mysterious death of a young college student visiting home for the weekend. He quickly begins to uncover a story more complex and sordid than it first appears (shocking, that!). Further difficulties arise as Tanner begins to experience various ocular disturbances – blurred vision, seeing things that aren’t there, a weird sort of starlight pixilation of the world around him.
A car crash lands him in front of an eye doctor, who diagnoses him with a rare, degenerative disease (AZOOR, an acronym for a lot of medical gobbledygook, but a real condition) of mysterious origins. Though not resulting in total blindness, the main characteristics, as portrayed from Tanner’s point of view with chintzy camera tricks here, are a certain fuzzed out quality to seeing the world, like it’s been made both super-bright and wrapped in gauze. Occasionally, certain things – faces, key objects – will come in to sharp focus. Or Tanner will see things that should be in a certain place but aren’t, his brain completing the image that is expected.
Tanner’s condition is the crux of the entire series, informing the show’s every aspect – and of course giving it its title. On a practical level, his waning eyesight is a seemingly insurmountable hindrance to his investigatory skills… or is it? There are hints, as the series progresses, especially in its later installments, of AZOOR granting Tanner some sort of mystical insight, allowing entry in to the minds of killers, or making connections in the chain of events that other detectives can’t see.
However, Second Sight never really commits to this angle, on how much importance to give to the quasi-supernatural aspects of his vision problem. It always just pulls back (rightly) from fully turning Tanner into some sort of mystic. It wants to have its cake and eat it too, presenting Tanner as both a dogged, rigorously intelligent investigator on the one hand, and as sort of a more dour, haunted Special Agent Cooper (minus the cherry pie and coffee obsession) on the other – solving cases more on luck, intuition and out and out hallucination, than because of any obvious sleuthing prowess. It’s an odd disconnect, the series at war with itself at what it wants its central character to be, and what do with its central gimmick.
The real surprise, though, is that this disconnect almost don’t matter. In fact, it dovetails nicely with what is really the key strength of Second Sight - the noirish mood of the series, and the richly realized psychological conflicts simmering within Tanner himself. Ultimately, the series is about a man at war with himself as the world he is accustomed to dealing with – a stark world of fact and certainty – crumbles away from his grasp.
His struggle to cope pulls him in every direction, and his pride and self-reliance take the biggest hit as he comes to have to depend on his comely new assistant, Catherine Tully (Claire Skinner), to literally be his eyes and support (and confidant, as she is the only one on the force in the know, at first). Throw on top of this custody squabbles with his ex-wife over his young son, and Tanner is slowly cooking to some sort of breakdown. Only focusing on the cases keeps him on track and from flying apart.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the mysteries themselves are incidental – there are four total, including the title series. They are more than mildly intriguing, if ultimately slight. They work best when they complement Tanner’s inner conflicts and personal problems. In this way, the later installments are actually better than the first one, which, though the longest and most complex of the lot, is the weakest.
“Second Sight” (the first, titular “episode”, as opposed to the series as a whole) suffers from too many red herrings, too much padding, and an overly chatty villain. The eventual solution is pretty well telescoped from early on, and only the constant degeneration of Tanner’s vision and his attempts to keep his condition secret keeps the ship afloat.
Much better is “Parasomnia”, the episode which best captures the noirish vibe the show is aiming for and highlights Tanner’s new unconventional investigatory skills. A gory murder, an amnesiac somnambulist femme fatale, and 90 minutes of Tanner slowly losing his mind to insomnia, paranoia and mounting frustration, this is the high point of the series, a riveting mini-film that would actually do well as a theatrical release.
The other two installments are engaging if not quite as enthralling. In “Hide and Seek”, Tanner is promoted to the head of a new crack unit of homicide, tackling stubborn and/or sensational cases. The first is a cold case of a murdered violinist, the unsolved status of which is a black eye on the face of the London PD. Meanwhile, Tanner and Tully’s relationship starts to buckle under the weight of his condition (how no one else notices on the staff that their chief is blind is beyond me – a great running gag if deliberate, a brutal oversight if not)
“Kingdom of the Blind” strains for political and personal poignancy with the case of a murdered black community leader, a decrepit old white supremacist, and Tanner’s finally coming to terms with his professional and personal life. The series ends here (for now), on an ambiguous note, Tanner striding forth into a blurry, hazy future (there are talks of reviving the show as a feature film, though details are… blurry for now).
Second Sight is finally collected in one DVD set a good decade after it went off the air. Previous releases of the individual installments had no special feature, and this has not been rectified with this collection, which is as bare bones as it gets. Spread out over five discs, the programs are slightly grainy, which actually enhances the look and feel of the show. I would have wanted something, anything, with Clive Owen talking about his first big starring role, before Hollywood came a calling.