'Whitechapel': More Historical Bread and Butter

Ross Langager

East London’s sordid criminal past continues to inspire this slick dramatic potboiler.


Airtime: Wednesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Rupert Penry-Jones, Phil Davis, Steve Pemberton, Ben Bishop, Sam Stockman, Claire Rushbrook, Hannah Walters
Subtitle: Season Three Premiere
Network: BBC America
Director: John Strickland
Air date: 2012-03-28

Whitechapel opens its third season on BBC America with another sharp juxtaposition of past and present. In the first two seasons, Detective Inspector Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones) and Detective Sergeant Miles (Phil Davis) tracked contemporary criminals who emulated historic figures, namely, a Jack the Ripper copycat and a pair of twins emulating the infamous 1960s gangster Kray brothers. Now, even as the detectives are celebrating their elevation to a permanent task force, their next case is taking shape, when a young woman finds a scene of gruesome gothic horror at what might best be described as an anachronistic tailor shop.

Such is the daily reality in London’s East End, where violent crime haunts the footsteps of fleeting revelry. As with the earlier seasons’ cases, the conventional motives -- such as debts, family squabbles, youthful delinquency, and revenge -- dry up right quick. At the same time, the grisly killings multiply, with one apparent common feature: there are no obvious signs of either entry or exit by the perpetrator at any of the crime scenes. A locked-room mystery, then. Most confounding.

Fortunately for the frustrated detectives, obstinate fusspot historian Edward Buchan (Steve Pemberton) -- improbably an expert on both the Ripper and the Krays -- has been attached to the unit in an official capacity at Chandler’s behest. Tasked with poring through the Metropolitan Police archives in order to dig up cases that may resemble the unsolved one at hand, Buchan lends the essentially procedural structure of Whitechapel a note of academic rigor. In this he is perhaps a surrogate for the show’s writers (Ben Court and Caroline Ip), delving as they do into East London’s criminal past for narrative and tonal inspirations.

As such, Buchan tends to lecture the veteran investigators about crime history and then advise them to solve the puzzles in front of them with interpretive leaps based on scholarly evidence. It’s a close-reading approach, a sort of New Criticism vector to police work with a bit of literary psychoanalysis tossed in to spice up the stew. Miles and his conservative-minded brethren reject this as nonsense as they have previously, leaving Chandler to defend Buchan -- at least until he pulls the persnickety scholar aside and chastises him for making him (Chandler) look the fool.

Apart from this scholarly gimmick, the central problem with Whitechapel is that, for all of the pulpy quasi-complexity of its cases, it now must defend its own existence. From its title to its Victorian Gothic-lite subject matter to its foundation of textual minutiae, Whitechapel was quite clearly designed primarily to render the Ripper mythology in a compelling modern cop drama package. Once the Ripper arc was resolved at the end of the first season, the show’s inherent unsuitability to any other period inspiration became difficult to disguise, even with the fine-cut flash of the second season's late-'60s-influenced production design.

Little wonder, then, that Court and Ip fall back on the 19th century in the third season. Moving away from the single-case per season structure, Whitechapel’s investigators will now tackle three cases over six episodes. The first two episodes evoke the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811, and the next pair will synthesize several sensationalist cases of the late 1800s, including the murders of America’s “first” serial killer H.H. Holmes, subject of Erik Larson’s bestselling book The Devil in the White City.

The show’s historical bread-and-butter is accompanied by a thin dramatic gruel, for the most part. Two-episode Story One, as it is dubbed, expends much of its time on a demonic red herring of a suspect (David Schneider), and irritatingly insists upon repeating the same precise, quick-cut montage of second-rate Japanese-horror-remake imagery ad nauseam. There’s also some perfunctory character development between the sensationalist intrigues, but only for Miles (who’s worried that his wife might be sick) and Chandler (who goes on a date). Nobody else seriously registers, which is too bad, because there are some fine actors in the cast, among them Sam Stockman and Hannah Walters.

And so Whitechapel may well be a spent force. Though it was never terribly formidable even at its initial best, it could be smoothly entertaining in a hectic, frothy way. High quality British television often tends towards brief runs, and unless the creative team wants Whitechapel to be defined by a dulled edge, it might be best to keep it short and pack it in.


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