Shall We Gather At The River?

The Wheel of Murder returns to wonder why Stellan Skarsgård is talking to himself.

Y'all, it's summer, and while some people might go to the beach or sit on a breezy pool deck enjoying the sun's deadly rays, we prefer a different life. A life in the shadowy byways of Minsk, the foggy alleys of Londontown, the dripping Venice canals, stepping over the dead bodies of the innocent and guilty, commiserating with the hardened souls left behind to ask why. Yes, it's time to gather that cardigan closer around you and spin the Wheel of Murder.

The Show: River is a six-episode Netflix original written by Abi Morgan, who also wrote The Hour and other amazing stuff like The Iron Lady. It stars Stellan Skarsgård as DI John River, so tortured by the murder of his partner Stevie (Nicola Walker) that he...well, he chit-chats with dead people to pass the time. I mean, he knows they're not really there; he's not crazy. Or, is he? It was released in 2015, and thus far I have been unable to determine if there will be a Season 2, but I hope there is.

The Formula: Let's see: mentally exhausted loner cop, sort of literally haunted by the death of his partner who may or may not have been doing some secret shady stuff; female chief who loves him despite his possible craziness, protecting him from the brass against her better judgment; new partner out of his depth but respectful of the legacy; occasional guest manifestations, including an old-timey serial killer from a bygone era (Eddie Marsan!) wearing period shirtsleeves and suspenders and encouraging River to get it over with and kill himself; compelling one-off mysteries here and there that River solves by piecing together questionable facts from his fragmented mind? IT'S ALL THERE. And it's so, so good.

"[Location] was like Another Character": Modern-day London looks pretty good these days. Not too gritty, not too cold and wet. There are a lot of nice nighttime skyline shots, especially ones including that building that looks like a wang.

Those Subtitles, Tho: It's in English, so you'd think you wouldn't need them, but you really might. Skarsgård, tho. He's not English. Far be it from me to disdain casting a Swede as an English Detective Inspector (more on which later): I'm just saying the guy barely talks and when he does it's, uh, terse.



What's Best About It? But here's the thing: Skarsgård's what's best about it! Putting him in this was a work of genius, no question. Seeing a man that stoic, that gruff, unwillingly have weird conversations with imaginary dead people? It's brilliant, and not least because of Walker, the object of his most anxious memories and most frequent neural guest. She is one of those actresses that actually make me nervous, she's that real. I believe what she says and does. And I believe that River is her friend, and that his grief for her is major. River is a mess over her, and the tenderness of his spiral is moving and often quite funny.

What's Worst About It? Well, you know, shenanigans. I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say that one or two formulaic elements -- especially when he has to see the police force's psychiatrist to talk about his manifestations -- grate. Still, the good far outweighs the bad. If you liked Happy Valley, you will enjoy River. It never condescends, and it doesn't hold back on the realness of the many nuances of human behavior and the many ways grief can break a person. The real worst about it is that these six episodes may be it (though if they are, the show was kind enough to put a bow on the series and not leave us hanging).

Whatever Shall I Serve? Should we honor Skarsgård's heritage and crack open some surströmming? (GOD, NO!) Should we go the London route and, I don't know, smoke a million cigarettes while nursing a pint in a loud disco full of Russians? It's the first Wheel of the season! We have to get it right! Okay, here is my suggestion, because you're going to want to binge on River -- possibly for all six episodes in one go -- and therefore must pace yourself. In memory of River's partner, the late Stevie, some takeaway Chinese followed by a Mars bar, maybe, if you're not counting WW points. Chase it down with a crisp shandy and settle in for the summer.