Word Play, Opera, ‘Endeavour’

Both Endeavour, and its parent series Inspector Morse make a point of juxtaposing a lovely illusion of Oxford with the city's uglier realities.

The second series of PBS Masterpiece series Endeavour reprises a glowingly beautiful fantasy of Oxford. A viewer unfamiliar with the real-life city might be forgiven for thinking that it only consists of the Radcliffe Camera, St. Giles, and a couple of colleges, in perpetual late afternoon sunlight.

Both Endeavour, and its parent series Inspector Morse make a point of juxtaposing this lovely illusion with the city’s uglier realities. Here again, we might be seduced by the Sunday-night coziness of the period setting and stately pace, as well the reassuring voices of cast members Roger Allam and Anton Lesser. This even as we also know that Endeavour will try to shake off potential torpor with plots featuring students’ anti-patriarchal rages, London’s criminal underworld, and some z-list celebrities.

To that end, the first episode, airing 29 June on PBS, opens with a seemingly disparate set of characters: a student activist with powerful parents, a missing schoolgirl, and a smiling beauty queen. No prizes for guessing that all are connected to the apparent suicide of a man with multiple identities in the middle of a parade.

Still a lowly detective constable with Oxford City Police, Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) is restless and in denial about the lingering effects of being shot by a suspect at the close of Series One. He returns from his enforced rehabilitation rail-thin, hyper-vigilant, and self-medicating, and what mentor Fred Thursday (Roger Allam) terms a “delayed reaction” presents clearly as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The condition is of a piece with the character’s previous discomforts, as the show presses the cliché that genius is seldom well adjusted. Endeavour also slyly suggests that narcissism’s another downside to being exceptional, in dialogue spoken as if Morse is the only man capable of righting Oxford’s wrongs, for if he fails, “There’s nothing”. Though the episode introduces a potential romantic interest in Morse’s new neighbor, Monica (Shvorne Marks), she’s drawn into a nurturing role by his vulnerability. Her existence primarily to restore his shaken confidence is a disservice to both characters, even if Endeavour fans know the relationship can’t last.

Morse’s current frailty provides for yet another cliché, in that his colleagues get to question his objectivity. Chief among these doubters is the archly pompous historian Dr. Copley-Barnes (Jamie Parker), who also appears in the fourth series of Inspector Morse. He’s just one in an Oxford populous with Clever Killers and Sneering Academics, a subset of Sneering Upper Class, invariably not to be trusted in crime drama.

Copley-Barnes is set against the working class characters, ever genuine and stoic in their suffering. Such inverse snobbery has the effect of rendering one of Endeavour‘s recurring themes, the toppling of establishment hypocrisies, somewhat toothless. Still, it does offer pleasures in the teasing domesticity of Thursday’s home life while also dropping hints that he isn’t averse to violence.

Another sort of complication appears in the thawing in relations between Morse and DI Jakes (Jack Laskey), with the possibility of developing the latter into more than a derisive rival, at the same time that Morse’s prickly interactions with soft-faced, ghoulish pathologist Max DeBryn (James Bradshaw) and journalist Dorothea Frazil (Abigail Thaw) suggest the detective constable hasn’t lost his edge, in spite of all the attention to his own suffering. Indeed, the new series features plenty of opera and wordplay for aficionados.

RATING 7 / 10