TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, has a review of the crime series "Vigil," set aboard a nuclear submarine. The show was a smash hit in the U.K. and is now premiering here on the Peacock streaming service. John says that "Vigil" has its flaws but will keep you watching from start to finish.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If we leave aside the Beatles' yellow one, submarines have a pretty dim reputation in popular culture. They get attacked by a giant squid in "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea," become a wartime hellhole in "Das Boot," and, to judge from "Crimson Tide" and "The Hunt For Red October," they're nearly always on the verge of triggering World War III. Their image doesn't get any brighter in "Vigil," a new police procedural about a murder aboard a nuclear submarine. The show broke BBC ratings records when it aired this summer in the U.K. and is now premiering here on the Peacock streaming service. Filled with well-known TV actors, this six-part series is a weird hybrid. It marries the bingeably implausible plotting of shows like "The Bodyguard" and "Line Of Duty" - the Brits really love their thrillers - to a story of psychological healing.
When a sailor is killed aboard HMS Vigil, a Scottish-based nuclear submarine out on patrol, the police hand the case to its top investigator, Detective Chief Inspector Amy Silva. She's played by Suranne Jones, a huge British star who you may know from "Doctor Foster" and "Gentleman Jack." Now, DCI Silva may not be the ideal person for the job given that, owing to an earlier trauma, she's claustrophobic and hates being underwater. No matter. They chopper her out to the Vigil, while the landlubber end of the case is carried out by her lover, Detective Sergeant Kirsten Longacre - that's Rose Leslie, who played Jon Snow's sweetheart on "Game Of Thrones."
Without giving too much away, I can tell you that there are more murders and, as befits a maritime story, a slew of red herrings. Silva's and Longacre's investigation keeps widening to involve MI5, the British admiralty, anti-nuke protesters, skullduggerous Russians, slippery Yank bureaucrats and Scottish VIPs with advanced degrees in shiftiness. As an aggressive alpha cop, Silva expects cooperation from the Vigil's crew, but to them, she's just in the way. So who can she turn to? The friendly-ish coxswain played by Shaun Evans, best known as the young Inspector Morse on "Endeavour"? The disdainful second in command - that's Adam James - who oozes entitlement? Can she even trust the captain, who often appears inept?
Here, early on, we see what Silva is up against when the captain, played by Paterson Joseph, tells her that she can't have the run of the sub for her inquiries.
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SURANNE JONES: (As Amy Silva) With all due respect, Captain, it isn't my job to persuade you. In my view, this boat is a crime scene. You need to return to port so that we can start proper inquiry. I was promised your cooperation.
PATERSON JOSEPH: (As Newsome) I take my orders from the chiefs of staff and the prime minister. My duty is to mission, boat and crew. While you are on board, you will obey my orders. Now, you're with us for three days? Do you work, but stay out of our way. And if I hear the word murder spoken outside this room, I'll have you confined to quarters.
POWERS: Like too many series these days, "Vigil" is drawn out. The action is padded with allusions to geopolitical risk and the danger of nukes, yet these are half-hearted. They receive nowhere near the attention that "Vigil" gives the flashbacks that explain how Silva, a driven bloodhound of a detective, is tormented by the obligatory personal demons. Jones is a charismatic actor, and if her performance as Silva was a wine, the sommelier would describe it as brisk and flinty, with underlying notes of frenzy.
In truth, Silva's inner crises aren't very interesting, but that's no surprise. If decades of thrillers have taught me anything, it's that almost none are better when they seek to deepen genre formulas by dwelling on their protagonist's personal lives. Call me heartless, but I just don't care about James Bond's childhood or romantic agony. Get back to spying, 007. Each time Kurt Wallander has yet another troubled encounter with his daughter, I start flipping the pages until he's back doing police work.
Although "Vigil's" creator, Tom Edge, may have hoped the series would offer a gripping character study, I can't imagine anyone watching it to see whether DCI Silva will have an emotional breakthrough. We're here to watch her solve the mystery - who did it and why - ideally in a way that keeps us guessing. And by this standard, "Vigil" succeeds, which is why, even though British critics carped at some of its hokiness, the British public ate it up. I mean, a claustrophobic detective chasing a murderer on a submarine - who wouldn't want to see that?
GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new series "Vigil," which begins streaming Thursday on Peacock.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Penelope Cruz. She stars in the new film "Parallel Mothers," which was written and directed by the great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. She starred or co-starred in several of his other films and won an Oscar for her performance in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." The new film, about childbirth and motherhood, was so emotional for her, during some of the scenes, it was hard to hold back her tears. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF PONCHO SANCHEZ'S "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF PONCHO SANCHEZ'S "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.