It all begins with a sad but predictable suicide. Lawyer Stephen Staunton in nearby Cambridge has been drinking heavily and is deeply in debt. Late one night, he turns his old service revolver on himself, leaving behind a blood-spattered suicide note and a grieving widow. It's an open-and-shut case, according to Geordie, who is the overworked police inspector in charge of the investigation.
But people confide things in a parish priest that they never tell police - which is how Sidney comes to suspect murder. His first hurdle is to convince Geordie that there's more to Staunton's death than meets the eye. Fortunately, the cleric and the cop bond over their war service, their love of a good pub, and their competitive instincts - in this case, for backgammon. It's the start of a beautiful friendship that takes Sidney and Geordie through a series of challenging cases, revealing the dark side of early 1950s England - jealousy, prejudice, class conflict, and plain old passion. The last emotion is not exactly unknown to Sidney, who is an unusually worldly clergyman. His pursuit of love is as much a part of the story as his tireless search for justice, spiritual fulfillment, and a really hip jazz club.
There are days that I hate television shows. Not as a source of entertainment mind you; in recent years television has undergone a bit of a renaissance and is better than ever churning out countless hours of quality entertainment. No, the reason I hate TV is when a show is really good, really entertaining, filled with compelling characters who grow and become worth tuning into every week - the season ends and you're stuck waiting for a year for the story to continue. On top of that, you can only talk about it to select number of people so you don't spoil anything. It's a wonderfully frustrating experience. While 'Grantchester' may not rise to the likes of 'Downton Abbey' notoriety or the fervid following of something like 'Game of Thrones,' that doesn't keep it from becoming six episodes of quality dramatic entertainment that is excruciatingly easy to binge watch.
Sidney Chambers, James Norton, is a young handsome man, living a quiet life in the small English hamlet of Grantchester in 1953. Life is seemingly going pretty well for Sidney, he's the new vicar of the parish and has earned the respect of the parishioners. He has ample time to imbibe a finger or two of whiskey while he listens to his collection of jazz records and he enjoys frequent weekly visits from the young and attractive Amanda Kendall, Morvin Christie. On the surface, everything would appear to be going Sidney's way. Only beneath the surface, everything is not quite as picturesque.
Sidney is haunted by the war, the things he saw and the things he had to do. His affinity for whiskey is less about taste than his chosen method for deadening his nerves. While perfectly well suited for the vicarage, the role of community moral leader is often in conflict with who he is as a man. Amanda has revealed she is now engaged to be married to someone else. To top things off, after a funeral for a man who committed suicide, one of the attendees reveals to him that it was no suicide and was in fact an act of murder.
Ever devoted to his parishioners Sidney sets out to learn the truth of the matter and if there is a mystery to be solved - he's going to see it through to the end. His inquiries lead him to cross paths with veteran detective Geordie Keating, Robson Green, who likes things neat and clean and in his eyes a suicide note with the man's blood on it is the definition of a tidily summed up case. Sidney is unconvinced and keeps pressing uncovering new evidence and brings Geordie into the fold, so to speak. As the two start to piece together the puzzle, they strike up an unlikely friendship and discover they have a lot more in common than an interest in a dead man.
This is where I become reluctant to speak in any detail about this television show. Since this is a murder mystery show I can't really talk at length about the murders since that would lead to one big spoiler after another, and then I don't want to talk about the relationships and how they change and move about as that would ruin the running dramatic arc that carries the show through six episodes.
What I will say about 'Grantchester' is this - it's a great show, that is hours of fun and incredibly well made. Produced through ITV and released in the USA through PBS's Masterpiece Mystery banner, 'Grantchester' turned out to be an unexpected delight. While it follows a vicar who teams up with a detective to solve murders, it isn't entirely about religion, nor is it entirely about the crimes. This is a show about the complexities of relationships. None of the murders and therefor subsequent murderers and victims involve anything frivolous. There are deep human connections at play through each episode and the structure of a 'Murder She Wrote' style show turns out to be a fantastic way to explore these themes of love, betrayal, and revenge.
Another great part of 'Grantchester' is its welcome sense of humor. While the topics of investigation and the characters themselves may tread heavy water, the show maintains a light air and a sense of fun. Little nuances from characters like Sidney's housekeeper Mrs. Maguire played by Tessa Peake-Jones and his assistant Leonard Finch played by Al Weaver help anchor some of the drama while also working to keep the tone light and fun, even during the darkest of episodes. Then there is the friendship between Sidney and Geordie. Murder mysteries are like comedies, you need the comedian or the wild intuitive sleuth, but you also need the straight as a razor detective to keep the dynamic interesting. If this relationship doesn't work, the whole show crumbles. Thankfully in the case of 'Grantchester' the chemistry from leads James Norton and Robson Green works wonderfully. It's very easy to see these guys having a great time on set because it's an energy they bring to their characters giving the light-hearted banter a lot of playful vigor. Given that it is a murder mystery show, there is a bit of a formula on display. Certain music cues come up when Sidney hits on an idea and has to run off to figure it out - but that's another great part of the fun. 'Grantchester' is ever so slightly self aware enough as to turn some of these moments into comedy and not keep the show heavy even as it tackles serious social themes.
It's very clear that with the impending series finale of 'Downton Abbey' arriving next year, ITV and it's global public television outlets are scrambling to find a viable replacement. 'Grantchester' may not be that replacement as it is far more 'Castle' fun than 'Days of our Lives' melodrama - but that doesn't mean it isn't a worthy successor. Given its period costume storytelling nature, comparisons to 'Downtown Abbey' are to be expected, but not entirely warranted. 'Grantchester really is its own beast and is its own source of worthwhile binge watching. That leads me to the next "problem" of sorts - there are only six episodes! My wife and I unintentionally worked through this series within two evenings. One episode became "lets watch one more" which in turn quickly became "if we brush our teeth now we can watch one more before we absolutely have to go to bed." With a second season apparently on the way, there is no scheduled air date - so if this is to be a one season affair it would be unfortunate. These are richly detailed characters with their own singular motivations that I personally can't wait to see on my screen again.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Grantchester' arrives on Blu-ray in the USA through PBS on two BD50 Discs. Housed in a dual disc Blu-ray case with dust cover, each disc opens to their respective main menus allowing for episode by episode navigation. All extra features can be found on disc two.
Sumptuous is probably the best word to describe this 1080i 1.78:1 transfer. From the sun-drenched opening scene, 'Grantchester' is a winner on Blu-ray. Shot digitally, detail is absolutely exquisite throughout the run of the six episodes from the warn out bricks of the church to the intricate costuming. Don't let the fact that it was shot on video worry you, with the skilled cinematography on display, it rarely has that "video" smoothness on display. The team behind this production clearly knew what they were doing and really get the most out of their modest budget. There is little if any kind of compression artifacts in the form of banding. The only issue, and it is a slight one, is crush. The vast majority of the run of this show exhibits some form of intricate lighting scheme that allows for some great sense of depth. During some of the later episodes as the drama ticks up a couple notches, the show starts taking place in some darker places like a London jazz club and various back alleyways - that's where the crush comes in. When there isn't a lot of lighting on display, those blacks wash over the scene and if a character is wearing dark clothing they quickly become floating heads. It's because of this reason alone that the image gets a 4 instead of a 5. Otherwise this is a beautiful show to look at and exhibits some fantastic production design work.
'Grantchester' gets a lot of life out of its English DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track. There isn't a whole lot of sound design going on to warrant a 5.1 track. Being primarily dialogue heavy, the stereo channels see plenty of action, but when the pace picks up and things get interesting, there is plenty of imaging happening to make this a splendid audio track. Particularly in busier party scenes or during the fifth episode jazz club set - sounds move about and occupy plenty of natural space to help the scenes feel lively and lifelike. Even during the noisiest of scenes, dialogue never has to struggle to be heard - unless your ear isn't tuned to heavy country or East end London accents. If you are one of those people that hasn't tuned their ear for that kind of dialogue, there is a fine English subtitle track that should help bridge the gap nicely. For such rich sound design, it's hard to find any fault with this track at all. Each episode has a distinct quality to it that makes it feel unique from the last episode and works to carry the story forward.
Making of Grantchester: (HD 13:12) This is a quick, behind the scenes feature that feels like it was probably a bit longer than it originally was. At times it feels like costar Robson Green was tasked with doing a walking tour of the production and sets, but only pieces of it remain. That isn't to say this isn't fun and interesting, it is, it's also very innocuous and only offers slight insight to the show and the novels it is based off of.
Interviews: (HD 6:42) This is a collection of interviews that you select one at a time but total barely seven minutes combined. Again these feel like they belonged to a longer behind the scenes effort. As each cast member is barely given 80 seconds to talk about their character, don't expect a lot of depth or insight.
Sidney & His Women: (HD 3:01) This feature focuses on the dynamics of the women that circle Sidney's life and how they play to different aspects of Sidney's persona.
Behind the Scenes: (HD 4:12) Similar to the interviews, cast members Tessa Peake-Jones and Robson Green provide location tours that highlight much of the production design and how it works within the show thematically as well as on a practical level.
Warpisode: (HD 3:35) This is a single continuous version of Sidney's wartime flashbacks presented in one big chunk rather than fragmented pieces. It's a good sign for the show when these moments work in snippets as well as one big long chunk - it doesn't lose any dramatic weight and is just as compelling. Then as a score hound I appreciate any and all usages of Thomas Newman's "Ghosts" from his score for 'Road to Perdition.'
Talking about television shows, let alone writing about them is very difficult. On one hand you need to provide a thorough analysis of the show but on the other you don't want to spoil anything for the people who haven't seen it let alone heard of it. 'Grantchester' is definitely a show I want to recommend to anyone looking for a mid-year fix to get them through to the next season of 'Downton Abbey.' Comparing the two is pointless, they're their own beasts and should be viewed as such, but that doesn't mean there aren't similarities that can be admired and appreciated. Equal parts drama, comedy, and mystery, 'Grantchester' is a fantastic show about two men who solve murders. But it's a lot more than that. It's a show about friendships and relationships. It's hard to suggest you go for a blind buy, but if you're at all curious find it on your local PBS station if its airing there or check it out from your local library, or stream it if you have to just tog get a taste of it. If you find out you love the show - this Blu-ray from PBS is very highly recommended and will fit nicely on your shelf.