Stateside, wildly popular forensic dramas like CSI and the Law and Order franchise are fast-paced, glossy affairs even when dealing with the gravest of subjects. But McCallum, which ran in the UK from 1995-1998, is a grittier yet more thoughtful take on the forensic “whodunit” show; more dependent on building atmosphere and brooding suspense than continuous scenes of kicking down doors and chasing down suspects.
The McCallum: The Complete Series is host to a gamut of bizarre if not unlikely plot twists similar to those found in the Law and Order series, where every murder is more complicated than it seems. But in each slow-burning episode of McCallum, there is as much existential contemplation as there is action surrounding the untraceable poisonings, murderous widows, and seamless frame-up jobs.
John Hannah plays Iain McCallum, the charming, motorcycle driving forensic pathologist brimming with left-field insight and an unconventional mastery of his craft. McCallum autopsies his way to the truth in murder case after extremely-convoluted murder case, while Detective Inspector Bracken (Gerard Murphy) is often at odds with McCallum’s unconventional conclusions and content to cut himself on Occam’s Razor rather than leave a case open.
McCallum’s group of co-workers, the affable aging British metal head Bobby Sykes (Richard O’Callaghan), the perennial good-ole’ boy Fuzzy Brightons (the late James Saxon), head pathologist Sir Paddy Penfold (Richard Moore), and the obvious potential love interest Dr. Angela Maloney (Zara Turner), drink together, fall for one another, and dig through human viscera to catch the bad guys in a drama that is fundamentally human in the midst of the irresistibly larger-than-life murder mysteries.
McCallum begins to crack up as the series continues on, and for good reason, he’s faced with a major life-changing vicissitude in nearly every episode. Every corpse that shows up on the slab ends up tied in some way or another to McCallum or his friends and loved ones. A woman he has a fling with in “Key to My Heart” shows up with a bullet in the head. “City of the Dead” finds Dr. Maloney, driving on little sleep (due to McCallum’s failure to show up at work and thus, she’s covering for him and putting in long hours at the morgue), suddenly accused of taking out a septuagenarian. The old man inexplicably dashed out of an old folks home and into the street — only to be hit by Maloney’s car — her exhaustion a major factor in the accident. McCallum is unable to keep his relationship together with his on and off live-in partner, Joanna Sparks (Suzanna Hamilton), though this has as much to do with job stress as it does with a few of the male characters on the show. McCallum included, the men seem quite unable to keep their pants zipped for an entire episode.
The sex, alongside all the death, the workplace love interests and subsequent jealousies, are acted out with perfection, adding an air of verisimilitude that doesn’t quite materialize in other forensic dramas. The discomfiting autopsy scenes don’t hurt either. Nothing is cleaned up for US TV, here; images of naked bodies, dirt, rubbery flesh, and Y-shaped chest incisions will make viewers feel as if they’re attending a real forensic investigation.
The show isn’t lugubrious over its subject matter, but it goes where other forensic dramas don’t insofar as it deals with uncomfortable issues of death — an element that oddly enough gets left out of dramas that take place largely in rooms filled with dead bodies. “Dead But Still Breathing”, in which McCallum is tailed by an obsessed killer with an axe to grind against him, finds the protagonist being mysteriously poisoned, his adversary harassing him by phone and demanding that McCallum be lucidly aware of his own powerlessness against his own mortality. Continued stress on the job and unfounded but plausible accusations find McCallum making a profoundly human move in “Running on Empty”, the last show of the second season. McCallum bails on all of his closest friends and resigns from his post — although not without some reconciliation at the end of the episode.
The final episode on the DVD set, though not the best of the series, could very well be the most interesting. A 1999 attempt to revive the series brought about this episode, with it’s slightly melodramatic Nietzchean title, “Beyond Good and Evil”. The episode itself is a gripping departure from form, and though it clearly aspires to a height that it doesn’t quite reach, it gives a clear insight into why the first episode of McCallum without the eponymous character, was also the last.
Picking up after John Hannah’s departure, two new pathologists are introduced to the team, Nathaniel Parker’s Dr. Dan Gallagher and Eva Pope’s Dr. Charley Fielding — two abrasive characters destined for romance, and to lord over the rest of the characters like tyrants. It’s easy to see from this episode that the show really codified around McCallum’s personality, if not his charming Scottish accent, and that no viewer could be asked to care about the relationship between two characters as immediately unlikable as Drs. Gallagher and Fielding.
“Beyond Good and Evil” is, however, an episode that explodes out of the forensic drama genre and moves almost into horror movie territory, replete with a murder more grisly than anything previously displayed in the series, lots of spiraling facial close-ups, and near-campy gothic killers promising to torture Dr. Gallagher and all those around him (being the focus of the criminally insane comes with working in the department, apparently). The anonymous killers’ strings are pulled via the internet by a character known only by his screen name, Death.
At this point in the series almost everyone in the department has a reason to have a chip on his shoulder against Dr. Gallagher, and so it’s almost definitely foreshadowed that this brief revival might end on a note of unprecedented darkness, with a main character succumbing to a sinister, maddened urge. However, the revelation of Death’s identity is a deus ex machine, leaving one wondering if the writers didn’t balk at their original intention to finish the series on a terribly disturbing high note. The ending doesn’t entirely satisfy, but at least the writers gave reviving McCallum, sans McCallum himself, a decent shot. After all, it worked on Valerie.
Even with no special features to speak of McCallum – The Full Series DVD manages to hold up entirely on the show’s virtues. Without the hip lighting and ultra-high tech feel of CSI, the smell of the morgue, the sound of the Stryker saw, and that unforgettable imagery of the Y-shaped incision made during an autopsy is left to play on the viewer’s mind and resonate. It’s not as easy to watch episode-after-episode of McCallum as it is to immerse oneself in a marathon evening of Law and Order: SVU, after all, with most episodes clocking in at 99 minutes or more, each one comes off more like a stand-alone mini-movie than a TV show. McCallum manages to be wild and intriguing, sexy and captivating, as well as contemplative. Thus McCallum is just as addictive as the popular forensic dramas in the US, the show just requires a bit more of the viewer’s attention… and patience… much like an actual autopsy.