'Whitechapel' Is a Diverting and Atmospheric Crime Drama
Whitechapel is a mystery drama that feeds into the evidently bottomless current appetite for pseudo-conspiratorial “secret history” fiction.
Newly minted Detective Inspector Joseph Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones) stands at the base of a metaphorical gilded staircase at the beginning of the first season of Whitechapel, looking up towards an illustrious future in the command echelons of London’s Metropolitan Police. Handsome, brilliant, and surely destined for a fine career, Chandler is feted by the established brass in recognition of his first posting -- a trifling stint in the titular section of the great city’s East End, that eternal den of poverty and crime.
The assignment seems a simple initial step in his ascent, nothing too challenging, and easily forgotten about when he’s looking down from above at from whence he has come. But then a knife flashes in the night, blood pools among the cobblestones, and everything changes for Chandler and for the East End.
Whitechapel is a show that relishes these sorts of easily drawn high-and-low dichotomies, and yet flourishes as a diverting and atmospheric crime drama despite them (or as a direct result of them). Produced by ITV in the UK more than two years ago and airing on BBC America, beginning 25 October, it’s an impeccably produced police procedural that can easily be compared with other British copper tales like Life on Mars (which preceded it), Sherlock or Luther (both of which came after it).
Like those comparables, however, it’s not just a cop show. It's also a mystery drama that feeds into the evidently bottomless current appetite for pseudo-conspiratorial “secret history” fiction. It soon becomes apparent that the aforementioned knife in the dark belongs to a Jack the Ripper copycat killer, mutilating vulnerable women in the same manner, the same locations, and on the same days as the legendary, never-captured Victorian British founder of the serial killer subculture did, 120 years later.
Chandler and his reluctant team of salt-of-the-earth detectives must immerse themselves in the minutiae of the Ripper legend if they are to predict where this contemporary Jack will strike next and outdo their Scotland Yard forbearers in catching him. Acting as Charon for the credulous cops in their crossing into this dark underworld is the tweedy, portly “Ripperologist” Edward Buchan (Steve Pemberton). He bases his insights on the many volumes of scholarship on the famous 1888 murders, all of which he’s studied and some of which he’s written himself (the show’s writers display a similar ingenuous engagement with Ripper lore). At first Buchan offers his encyclopedic knowledge unbidden, then later on Chandler seeks it out, until it inevitably leads to wariness and even to his arrest as a suspect.
A feeling of kinship develops between the scholarly-obsessive Buchan and the obsessive-compulsive Chandler, as both clash with Ray Miles (Phil Davis), the sandpapery, no-nonsense Detective Sergeant of the unit Chandler has been shuffled in to command. Much of Whitechapel’s minute-by-minute micro-appeal derives from the prickly interactions among this central trio, and Davis is the bustling hub of this interpersonal trade.
Familiar to British TV aficionados as the brainy, mouthy cabbie who goads Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes into a high-stakes intellectual contest in the first episode of the aforementioned Sherlock, Davis is all mouth as DS Miles, snarling through obtrusive teeth his undying working-class animus for the web of fancy cerebral conceits in which he finds himself. If Miles can be a bit too crusty, Buchan can be a bit too fussy and professorial, and Chandler a bit too primly and stereotypically British, in both his mania for order and his related neuroses.
Penry-Jones seems like an odd choice for a drama so reliant on arty cinematography and stone-enclosed atmosphere as Whitechapel does in its first three episodes. Able and good-looking, he seems out of his depth in the labyrinthine Ripperological arcana and out of place in the dank cellars and alleys that are the obligatory settings for this brand of murder mystery.
He fares better in the second three episodes, which focus on another set of copycat murders, emulating the Swinging London crime icons, the Krays. This shift of focus typifies Whitechapel's narrative of oppositions, of doubling. Interspersed between the scenes of plot, dialogue, and action are artful wide shots of the titular setting. We see East London as a city double exposed and fractured, its impeccably built-up veneer of rational civilization ever threatened by slashes of chaotic violence. Even if it slips into generic tropes here and there, Whitechapel’s own veneer of nicely crafted entertainment remains intact.