The thing is, Masterpiece's 'Case Histories,' which adapts a trio of Kate Atkinson's popular Jackson Brodie novels over the course of three weeks, can't be neatly filed away in the "mystery" category. As is the case with Atkinson's bestselling novels, this thoughtful and well-paced program ranges from the subversive to the sad without losing focus on the emotions of the complex people at the center of the story. Its frequently light tone can turn on a dime to tragedy, and the fact that this version of 'Case Histories' pulls off those transitions so deftly is a minor miracle.
"There is a bit of magical misdirection going on," actor Jason Isaacs, star of Showtime's 'Brotherhood' and NBC's upcoming drama 'Awake,' says of 'Case Histories,' in which he plays the ex-cop Jackson Brodie. "It looks like a crime thriller and it's not that at all. It's a great, big, current anthropological satire. It's full of these rich, boldly etched characters that leap off the page and screen, and they are not from the rag-bag of clichés that a crime thriller is normally made of."
As Isaacs says of Atkinson, "She is clearly not interested in crime or the solving of it."
That said, fans of crime imports like 'Luther,' 'Prime Suspect' and 'Sherlock' will find solidly told stories about dark deeds here, but, like those shows, 'Case Histories' is character driven, not procedurally oriented. The central pleasures of the first installment of 'Case Histories' is that it doesn't take itself too seriously as it paints compelling character portraits and deftly weaves together several sagas that demonstrate the hold that the dead have on the living. It's one of those rare stories that takes sentiment seriously without being sentimental.
In that best screen-detective tradition, private investigator Brodie can't seem to turn down particularly tough or heartbreaking cases, despite his desire to avoid difficult investigations and emotional entanglements. Early on in Sunday's installment, Brodie meets two sisters who want the decades-old case of their sister's disappearance solved, and, throughout the episode, he charms a wary former police colleague into giving him information on the recent murder of a different young woman. Her father has lost patience with the official investigation, and he's convinced that the perceptive Brodie will spot details that others missed.
Against his better judgment, Brodie takes on both cases, and Jackson's work begins to serve as a subtle commentary on the detective's contradictory character. He's divorced and lives alone and is disliked by most of his former colleagues, but he's exceptionally good at getting people to open up and he can't seem to resist getting embroiled in other people's family dramas. As another character points out, Brodie, the father of a young daughter, can't seem to resist "lost girls," and he's clearly haunted by a dead young woman in his own distant past. Hence his addiction to rather mournful country music.
The detective "thinks of himself as very hard-bitten and cynical," Isaacs said. "In fact, he is ridiculously sentimental and listens to weepy music and he can't say no to anybody, although he [thinks] that he sees through everybody. In fact, he is a sucker."
The deadpan good humor with which Brodie deals with the range of cases before him serves him in good stead, and Isaacs' versatility on the role can't be overpraised. In Showtime's 'Brotherhood,' Isaacs proved that he has the presence to play the heavy, but Brodie is more of a wounded, mildly acerbic romantic, and Isaacs pulls off this multifaceted role with ease. Brodie has to be credible when he's on his hands and knees looking for a lost cat in the garden of a slightly dotty client and equally believable when he's hanging out with his little girl or questioning a recalcitrant nun about her family's tragic past, and thanks to Isaacs' charisma and subtle craft, it all seems of a piece.
"I probably wouldn't have taken the job on if I had known how enormous his legion of women fans around the world were. ... He just is a heroic, white-knight figure, and Kate said to me that... he is a fantasy figure truly created by a woman, because nobody could really be that," Isaacs said.
The role in 'Case Histories,' which was filmed on location in Edinburgh, was one of the most physically demanding of his career, Isaacs said. At one point, Brodie has to jump into the sea, and "they kept on canceling [the scene], because health and safety people said I would probably die." When he did finally do the stunt, "it was far and away the most painful thing that I have ever done in my life." Then there was all that running that Brodie does.
"He is slight OCD," Isaacs explains. "He is a cop. He is ex-army. He exercises a lot. He lives a rather monastic existence, and it seems to be ordered or he would think he is ordered. He actually ridiculously chaotic, but he exercises. He runs a lot because it's a metaphor. He's running from everything. ...I did an awful lot of running on screen, up and down those hills of Edinburgh, which is no fun."
But at least all the physical training he did for the role paid off in the form of positive reviews when the show aired in the U.K. over the summer.
"One of the things I had to do was starve myself and go to the gym every day because I knew I had to get my [clothes] off repeatedly, and sure enough, after 25 years of acting and reviews for my nuance and three-dimensional characterizations, that has all been a waste of time," Isaacs said with a laugh. "I should have just gone to the gym earlier, because all the reviews were about what I looked like with my shirt off."
Given the difficulty of capturing the distinctive tone of Atkinson's books and the project's physical demands, it was ironic to hear that Isaacs always resisted taking roles in crime-oriented shows because he feared falling into a rut of "lazy detective acting."
"A lot of my friends have enjoyed themselves and bought rather vulgar, large houses by putting sunglasses on and off and deciding whether to wear the blue or black suit every day," Isaacs said. "I have avoided my whole life doing crime drama because I don't like it. I don't watch it and I don't read it. I think it panders to our worst fears. But then somebody offered me an incredibly rounded and interesting and provocative character and I think he is funny and sad and moving and entertaining, and same with the [show] I'm doing for NBC. I couldn't resist it."
In his new NBC drama 'Awake,' which premieres at mid-season, Isaacs plays a detective who shifts between two different realities, both of which he wants to be real, for reasons that become clear in the first episode. So far, his new role has not involved any icy plunges or jogging, he is happy to report.
"It's a lot more sedentary and yeah, [there's] a nice, sparkly blue shirt to set your eyes off and car service and people bringing you chocolate lattes all day," Isaacs said with a laugh. "There is none of that in Edinburgh, let me tell you!"
Before ending the interview, I couldn't resist asking Isaacs if it was hard to let go of his role as Lucius Malfoy in the 'Harry Potter' films.
"That was like going back to your favorite holiday resort every year and seeing all your favorite people there," Isaacs said. "To turn up to work and look around and see the roster of those actors, this extraordinary list of people who were around me, dressed in equally silly costumes, was such a privilege and I can't believe it's not going to happen again."
Note: Episodes of 'Case Histories' will start being posted on the Masterpiece site on Oct. 17. You can watch a video clip from the first episode here.
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