Anna Friel plays a maverick ex-cop whose personal life is such a disaster that she returns to the job she quit many years before.
As Marcella Backland’s marriage disintegrates, her interest is piqued by a case she reads about in the papers and which bears a close resemblance to a crime she never managed to solve ten years ago: the return of a killer who asphyxiates his victims in the particularly cruel and unusual fashion of tying a plastic bag round their necks.
Troubled cop returns for one last case. So far new ITV crime drama Marcella sounds pretty procedural.
But what made the opening episode so very different from the traditional UK crime series was the hidden hand of writer Hans Rosenfeldt – the bear-like Swede who has brought us three series of Scandi Noir classic The Bridge.
Yes, this may have had all the hallmarks of a typical ITV crime drama, but Rosenfeldt gave it an unmistakably Swedish twist.
What felt like a departure for ITV (even post-watershed) was the way it didn’t shy away from rubbing our noses in the visceral reality of murderous violence. It’s the kind of thing that will be familiar to Scandi Noir fans but doesn’t usually show up on the commercial network.
Episode one opened with Marcella lying bloodied in the bath and unsure of what she had done. She suffers from mental blackouts and amnesia it seems, something which one suspects is going to land her in a lot more trouble as the series develops.
By the close of the episode we were none the wiser, though a scene where she follows Grace Gibson (Maeve Dermody), the lover of her estranged husband Jason (Nicholas Pinnock) to her front door may have something to do with it. Did she beat up, kill or maim her rival?
Of course we don’t know, yet. But what we can be sure of is that Rosenfeldt is a writer who makes his female cops really suffer. And, while he is a gentle soul in person, he writes some pretty grisly drama (Or as Pinnock put it to me when I spoke to him: “He’s a huge teddy bear with a really sick mind”).
Rosenfeld has stressed that Marcella and Saga are two very different creatures and he balks at comparisons with The Bridge. And it is true that the visual palette of the two shows is very different. Instead of the bleak monochromes of shows like The Bridge or The Killing, this was a London lit up, seen through different eyes and vibrantly awash with colour and visuals.
But just as Sofia Helin’s Saga Noren was really put through the wringer on The Bridge – no more so that in the last series – here Marcella is also a woman very much at rock bottom.
As well as that, Marcella is, like Saga, somewhat short on social skills (though she may be a little more adept than her Swedish counterpart). Determined, angry, she winds up her colleagues (her boss DI Rav Sangha most of all) in a very similar fashion. And like Saga, you have every confidence that she will catch her man (or woman) come episode eight.
Yup, that’s right, episode eight. Rosenfeldt likes his dramas long, complex and tortured and you get the feeling that the Swede will make good on his promise to cram in more “hooks, twists and red herrings” (his words) before our time is up.
Personally, I suspect a greater focus on moral probity and that the business dealings of the ruthless Sylvie Gibson (Sinead Cusack) will have something to do with all the hideousness we have witnessed so far. It is a feature of a lot of Scandi Noir that money is the root of quite a lot of evil.
As for the violence, well, if you think that tonight’s killings and spilt blood is hard to stomach, much more is promised. Apparently there is a scene in future episodes featuring a crucified spaniel.
Yes, a crucified spaniel. Not the kind of thing you get with Grantchester now, is it?
This article was originally published on 4 April 2016