Why River is an exquisite stinker, from top to bottom

From its miserable tone to its bizarre plotlines, Alison Graham is sick to death of Stellan Skarsgaard's tormented cop

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Can you imagine working with insufferable detective John River? Having to look at him all day as he stares balefully into the middle distance like a lollipop man who’s lost his sign.

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He doesn’t quite wander round asking, “Have you seen my sign? I left it here somewhere. It’s big and quite noticeable and I must have it back. Have you seen my sign?” But it’s a close thing.

Then there are the tears. John River cries all the time. Which is fine, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a bloke having a blub, I’m all for it. But in the words of the estimable The Streets, dry your eyes, mate. You’re a senior police officer – for god’s sake pull yourself together.

Then there are those moments of unfocused fury as River (Stellan Skarsgard) lashes out, apparently at thin air, or bashes his bloodied fists into a wall. What he’s actually doing is seeing and sometimes punching the ghosts of murdered people. He does that, it’s his thing. All miserable television detectives have a thing – from Inspector Morse, who was a solitary, romantically thwarted curmudgeon who could never find happiness and did crosswords as a displacement activity, to Det Insp Pat Chappel in The Vice who couldn’t help but fall in love with prostitutes who always ended up murdered.

Imagine, as his putative workmate, asking River if he wants a cup of coffee from the canteen because you’re going that way and you don’t mind at all so what would he like? Milk? Sugar? Imagine the existential chasms those questions would open for a man who is Not Like Others. Imagine if he wanted a biscuit. Just think of all the pained expressions as he tore himself apart over the question that lies at the heart of our very selves – bourbon or shortbread?

River is one of those dramas that takes itself terrifically seriously (see also From Darkness). At its heart it’s a crime story, but it’s clear writer Abi Morgan wants it to be so much more – it’s a study of a Damaged Soul, a Shattered Psyche, a Man Who is in Torment After the Murder of His Sidekick.

But River is just a series of miserable stories about a miserable man with some miserable friends (see also DCI Banks, Taggart, Luther – the list is endless). There’s an unintentionally hilariously bleak dinner party in this week’s episode where River’s boss’s husband, a judge (Michael Maloney), gets drunk and opens his own heart of darkness.

“I am dying from the inside,” says this cheerful host, cheerfully. “I hate my life… Life neuters us all.” Erm, OK. Are there going to be cheese and biscuits? A nice bit of Wensleydale would go down a treat right now .

In short, River is an exquisite stinker, watch it and you have to leave a window open afterwards. It’s so bad even the magnificent Nicola Walker can’t save it. She’s singularly irritating as River’s dead/ghost ex-colleague who insists upon appearing to him talking uncomfortably in an ill-fitting gorblimey accent.

I’m all for a bit of Scandi gloom, but Skarsgard, who doesn’t so much talk as rumble like a distant avalanche, is a black blanket of darkness. Whenever I see him I hear Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart playing over and over in my head. All of the great Nordic Noir shows – The Killing, The Bridge – had pulses of dark humour that made them vibrate, rather than just sweat with portent like River. And why doesn’t John River just ask these ghosts, the “manifests” of murder victims, as he calls them, “Who killed you?” Then they’d tell him and we could all go off and have a party.

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River airs on Friday nights on ABC in Australia