Passenger review: Beautiful and brilliantly acted – but overstuffed with ideas SuperNayr

“We don’t get psychos down here,” a detective observes in the new ITV drama, Passenger. “They’re all in Leeds.” Clearly, they haven’t been watching many British murder mysteries, or they’d know that death doesn’t just lurk in the big cities. Behind the picture book hills and lakes, stone-walled lanes, and villages with nothing more than a pub and post office, there is plenty to be feared. From Midsomer to Grantchester, the Calder Valley to Shetland, nowhere is safe from TV writers.

Riya (Wunmi Mosaku) is an ex-Met police officer who relocated to Chadder Vale, up north, for a husband who subsequently left her. Now she’s been abandoned in this small town (“A place where everyone matters,” as the welcome sign ironically warns) with nothing more than a handful of naïve colleagues, a flirty Polish boxing partner, and a sense of being outside the action. “Why, when there’s a big case, can’t I get anywhere near it?” she asks. And so, she has to create her own narrative, drawing together disparate threads of local discontent: a missing Swedish tourist, a strange road traffic accident, and the re-emergence of a man, Eddie Wells (Barry Sloane), who she put away for a violent crime five years earlier. Oh, and then there’s trouble at t’mill (well, bread factory) and a subplot involving protestors at a fracking site.

The puzzle of what exactly the show’s mystery actually is, unfolds slowly. The tone is inflected with supernatural tinges, while the Wells family – mother Joanne (Natalie Gavin) and daughter Katie (Rowan Robinson) – are evidently at the heart of proceedings. But the rest is a masterclass in tantalising viewers: cameras cut away at the moment of revelation, ominous insinuations are made beyond the viewers’ comprehension, darkness cloaks the hills and woods of the Yorkshire landscape.

Passenger represents the screenwriting debut of actor Andrew Buchan (who, after playing Matt Hancock in This England, could be forgiven for deploying a disembowelled stag as a relaxing creative outlet). Rather than existing in the tradition of gritty British police procedurals, Passenger is one of a growing trend of terrestrial shows – the BBC’s Boat Story being one; Netflix’s Sex Education, another – that embrace the aesthetic traditions of Americana. Even the Dog & Duck, Chadder Vale’s local public house, looks like a mid-Western roadside bar.

Wunmi Mosaku in ‘Passenger’

(ITV)

The line between being referential and derivative is a fine one. “This isn’t Twin Peaks, love,” a character observes at one point. “This is not Broadchurch,” a different character observes later. (Buchan was in Broadchurch, playing grieving father Mark). They’re right, this is neither Twin Peaks nor Broadchurch, nor is it Tin StarBlack MirrorHappy Valley or any of the other shows that have dealt previously with Passenger’s subject areas. And yet the ingredients feel familiar, whether it’s the high-flying detective navigating countryside life or the local businessman who’s in over his head. Buchan draws from a wealth of influences to create something that feels like it is attempting to synthesise the entire canon of TV crime in a 50-minute episode.

But while Passenger is undoubtedly guilty of doing too much, this approach does ensure there is plenty of good stuff in there. The setting, playfully blanketed in snow (“It’s gone all Billy Baltic again,” a radio presenter observes), is beautiful. The central character, Riya, is an interesting protagonist. Mosaku imbues her with a toughness, which verges on the saintlike, as she pursues justice and cares for her ailing former mother-in-law. The supporting cast, too, including David Threlfall as the fraying custodian of the local fracking development, and Hubert Hanowicz as a mechanic caught between the police and criminals, is generally excellent. Disentangled, Passengers might have two or three good shows in it.

But what Passenger lacks is the sparseness and simplicity of great crime drama. Whether that’s the unravelling lives of Fargo or the collective grief and suspicion of Broadchurch, these narratives focus as much on the destination as the journey. Overstuffed with ideas and plotlines, Passenger feels like the first draft of a much better show.

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