Keen in The British City
Bravo for a detective show.


S. T. Karnick

The typical form for a TV mystery show today is to place an eccentric detective on the trail of very strange criminals in a basically normal world. From Nero Wolfe to Adrian Monk to Detective Goren on Law and Order: Criminal Intent to the BBC’s Jonathan Creek to the anguished medical examiner Cavanaugh in Crossing Jordan to the protagonist of the new U.S. version of the British series Touching Evil, odd detectives and bizarre crimes are the, well, norm.

The American TV series Keen Eddie, now showing on the Bravo cable network (10 P.M. Wednesdays), reverses that formula: The detective is normal, and the criminals are understandable, but the world is quite mad. The series takes place in contemporary London, where a brash but highly likeable New York City cop named Eddie Arlette has landed after a failed international drug bust. He goes there to pick up the pieces after that fiasco, and, thanks to his success in doing so, ends up working for Scotland Yard, rather like New Mexico sheriff McCloud (Dennis Weaver) in the 1970s series of the same name.

Also like McCloud, Eddie is a thoroughly decent–but not at all priggish–working-class gentleman at sea in an entirely insane place, the wild, swingin’, utterly mad but oh-so-cool Britannia of the Blair years. Most of the problems that Eddie has to deal with in the show occur because the people in Blair’s Britain simply cannot be troubled to control their impulses, nor want to.

The show gleefully overturns the clichéd American view of England as stuffy and hidebound. For example, Eddie’s partner at the Yard, the youthful, long-haired, charming Monty Pippin (Julian Rhind-Tutt), is an unabashed libertine who even pretends to be married so that he can join a “swingers” club where people swap spouses temporarily, yet he is entirely submissive to their boss, Superintendent Nathanial Johnson (Colin Salmon).

Superintendent Johnson (excellently played by Colin Salmon), is another such conflicted soul. He is as conservative as can be, and is an ardent careerist. As a result, his attitude toward Eddie is one of grave ambivalence, and his responses to Eddie’s adventures are never easy to predict. Johnson dislikes Eddie’s brashness and eccentric investigative procedures, but he definitely likes the results. The one thing that saves Eddie from swift termination is Johnson’s unerring desire for power, and his sense that Eddie can provide a means to garner more of it, in particular by showing Johnson to be innovative and energetic.

For example, in the episode that premiered last Wednesday, the superintendent lets Eddie proceed on an investigation of hazing in an elite school for young boys because the commissioner of police is a graduate of that school, and allowing Eddie to pursue such an investigation will show that Johnson is more powerful than even his own boss. It is not only an excellent plot point but, more importantly, a very perceptive insight into organizational politics and the workings of bureaucracies.

Johnson, however, does good only when it clearly serves his interests. He shows much more interest in a fine cigar than in the lives of the victims of the various crimes that dot his agenda. As Eddie tells him, rather bravely, things are done very differently in New York: “You see, in America we don’t have to coordinate solving our cases around our superiors’ promotion schedules.”

Similarly, Eddie’s flatmate, Fiona (Sienna Miller), is terrified of her boss but a terror around the house. She continually insults Eddie and torments him in any way she can, which is a great irony given that she is living there only at his sufferance: her mother, who is renting the apartment to Eddie, believes that Fiona is away at school. Eddie could easily be rid of her if he would only call her mother and rat the snotty little vixen out. But he refrains from doing so, perhaps in part because she is extremely sexy and beautiful.

Yes, Eddie’s motives are complex here, as are those of most of the major characters in the show, which is another thing that makes it very unusual television. The story lines reflect this schizophrenia, the propensity to follow one’s wandering desires at all costs while still being pulled by the tattered remnants of traditional morality. This England is a crazy quilt of disturbed individuals without any evident purpose to their lives besides the pursuit of power and pleasure.

The visuals fit the subject matter well. The jumpy editing style, typically with a relatively short duration for each individual shot, especially in action scenes, is reminiscent of modern Hong Kong cinema, and the use of swiftly edited transition squibs featuring quick camera movements accelerates the pace further. There is nothing boring about the world of Keen Eddie, though alas little that is peaceful.

Eddie has the classic American detective’s penchant for wisecracks, and a strong, square-jawed, and youthful but mature look appropriate to the role. But he solves his cases through ingenuity rather than force and bluster, and he is far more likely to receive a beating than to administer one. He even wears a short, brown raincoat, a clear tribute to the fictional L.A. police detective Lt. Columbo, whose great genius was hidden behind a humble, rumpled exterior.

The narratives are as adventurous as life in the modern world, often fractured and challenging to follow. (This is made even more difficult by the fact that the episodes, a few of which appeared on the Fox network last summer, have been shown wildly out of order.) The first episode begins with Eddie escaping from a car driven by men who have kidnapped him, for what reasons we do not know, and then being recaptured. We are then told what happened two weeks before, and then what occurred in the intervening period. It is mildly confusing at first, but all quite watchable because Eddie is likable and the dialogue is often delightfully inventive.

For example, when Fiona says, “She’s my cat, not your pimp!” it is in fact a perfectly reasonable response to the situation, though a flamboyant and certainly ridiculous one. Likewise, after Eddie and Fiona break down and do each other a favor, he says, “You know, I almost don’t hate you today.” Fiona replies, “Yeah, I almost don’t hate you, too.” This sort of thing, which is sprinkled liberally throughout each episode, is reminiscent of 1930s Hollywood screwball comedies, but with the rhetorical style jacked up to contemporary levels. The show’s recurring and guest characters also display a great and interesting variety of vocal accents.

The main story elements are anything but elegant. They include narcotics being smuggled in statuettes of Big Ben, Eddie being beaten up in a meat-packing plant, the theft of a container of frozen horse semen, an armed robbery by a gang wearing Duran Duran masks, a tough Cockney who literally crushes the testicles of the men who took his soccer tickets, a sleazy identity-theft ring, a sex-addict group, and brutal, dangerous hazing incidents at a tony school for boys.

This is clearly much more the world of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Trainspotting than that of Masterpiece Theater and Agatha Christie novels, but the productions by no means favor the former spirit over the latter. It is the very anarchy of this place that makes it attractive, true, but that is also what makes it dangerous.

And it is what makes Keen Eddie fascinating television. Eddie is the one reasonably sane person at the center of this maelstrom, and it is with him that the audience is clearly meant to identify. We may live more like those around him (however disinclined we might be to admit it), but we all might aspire to be more like him.

That is what makes Eddie’s characterization–and Mark Valley’s intelligent and nuanced portrayal of him–so important to the show’s success. If Eddie were a stuffy prig, we would see no healthy, reasonable character who could actually cope with this mad world rather than simply withdrawing and asserting his own superiority. Such self-importance, after all, is neither morally right nor a viable option for living well in the moral haze that I call the Omniculture, of which Keen Eddie’s world is a particularly vivid depiction.

Eddie, to his credit, does not withdraw from this world, choosing instead actively to engage it and try to change it, one case at a time. As portrayed by Valley, Eddie is a slick, charming, handsome, likeable bastion of morality and order, the perfect centerpiece for an intelligent and sophisticated exhibition of the value of homey, even sometimes hokey, moral standards.

S. T. Karnick is editor in chief of American Outlook magazine, published by the Hudson Institute, and an NRO contributor.