Monday, May 02, 2005

Bloody Intellectual: BBC America's Wire In the Blood


Advertising hype usually arouses nothing but resistance in me, so I've been a long time coming to watch BBC America's Wire in the Blood, the "most intense two hours on television." I just didn't feel ready for yet another semi-autistic savant leading investigations. After all, I already had standing appointments with Gil Grissom and Dr. Gregory House, and had rejected Numb3rs for much the same reason.

Resolutions are made to be broken, and I did watch it finally—and I'm hooked. Robson Green's Dr. Tony Hill makes his mental efforts totally transparent, and he's less a mental magician than an obsessed compulsive completer. If you had my training and access to the police data, his manner says, you could solve these crimes, too. The character also has a rational relationship with DSI Carol Jordan, ably played by Hermione Norris, who heads the crime probes he's assisting.

Dr. Hill's assistance comes from his ability to enter the mind of a serial killer (and sometimes, his victims), sorting clues and juggling evidence until a pattern becomes clear. Clear to Dr. Hill, anyway. Like House, Wire involves some false starts and mistaken diagnoses before the real answer comes clear. But unlike the medical drama, Dr. Hill's solutions are couched in ordinary, understandable language.

This week's episode was a chilling echo of the Beltway Snipers, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo. Hill and Jordan are faced with a series of seemingly unconnected deaths, in each of which a single playing card is found at the sniper's firing point. Dr. Hill struggles to find a pattern in the killings, even while he deals with the discovery that he has a brain tumor that may or may not be malignant.

Based on the pattern Hill has put together, the police arrest a man who is connected to each of the victims. They seem sure they have the right man, especially when they discover a cache of rifles hidden in the man's home. But as Tony Hill is consulting with a local minister, the man is shot in front of the church, literally inches away from Dr. Hill. The sniper is still at large, and Hill's pattern falls apart.

The phrase "the wire in the blood" comes from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets
The trilling wire in the blood
sings below inveterate scars
appeasing long-forgotten wars.
In an interview, Robson Green said the phrase was taken to mean a genetic kink, something impure and unusual in the blood, that might lead to the kind of psychosis Hill deals with. Val McDermid, author of the Dr. Hill and DSI Jordan mysteries, agreed. "Who knows what Eliot really meant by that line? Robson's explanation is as good as any. For myself, I've always taken it to be a metaphor for the thrill of adrenaline surging through the bloodstream. But we'll never know for sure."

This is a well-written drama, and if there are stereotypes here, at least they come from British assumptions, and seem less expectable to American eyes. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable, and (I hate to admit) intense experience. And since I've held off for so long, the reruns will be fresh viewing for me.

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