Grace review: John Simm mystery is tonally confused, but thrilling fun
Just like the medium that Roy visits, Grace shouldn't work - yet somehow, inexplicably, it mostly does.
Grace is an odd series. Based on Peter James' best-selling series of novels, and starring John Simm as the titular detective Roy Grace, it never quite seems sure of what it wants to be.
This first episode, which was filmed alongside last year's episode Dead Simple and aired in the US last year, is called Looking Good Dead, and finds Grace and his partner DS Glenn Branson (Richie Campbell) investigating the sudden death of a former schoolteacher, which seems to be linked to the discovery of human remains in a field.
As with Dead Simple, it's a gripping story which is at times grimly dark, exploring grisly crimes which wouldn't be out of place in an episode of Luther. Yet with this series set against the sunny backdrop of Brighton, rather than the murky streets of nighttime London, something feels tonally off. Grace has all the trappings of a conventional ITV detective drama, and is at times visually indistinguishable from a DCI Banks or an Unforgotten. Yet its subject matter ping pongs from the macabre to the ridiculous.
These only aren't the oddities surrounding the series. This episode once again finds Grace visiting a Medium, with startlingly accurate results. From hearing James talk about this plotline at an event with RadioTimes.com and other press, it would seem it was included because of James' own belief that paranormal sources can pay dividends, meaning that Grace would be derelict of his duties not to follow up on the possibility. But in a drama revolving around a central mystery, its inclusion leaves the audience afloat, unsure of what to trust and exactly how the logic of this world operates.
There's also the introduction of Craig Parkinson as Norman Potting, a sarcastic detective who's a lot of fun but seems to wander in halfway through from a completely different show; there's technology which despite being updated from Peter James' novel (a CD becomes a USB stick) still somehow seems dated; and there's a seemingly one-time character whose behaviour is at times so sketchy you think there has to be more to him, yet it's never followed up. It's all just a bit strange.
And yet, despite all this... Looking Good Dead is an undeniably fun ride. The central mystery itself is gripping and well-paced, doling out bits of information at just the right time to keep things engaging, while Simm and Campbell make for a strong on-screen pairing. Simm in particular is naturally charismatic in the role, making Grace at once unknowable yet also deeply empathetic at the same time.
Of the supporting cast, Amit Shah gets the most to do as Zack Bryce, a train passenger who stumbles upon video footage he wasn't supposed to and gets wrapped up in the central mystery. It's a nervy, emotionally heightened role which could be hard to pull off and easy to get wrong, but Shah lends the character humanity and an authenticity.
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Just as in Dead Simple action sequences are thrillingly executed, and the overall story resolution is satisfying, while leaving enough character threads hanging to allow for development across the rest of the season. There's no denying that despite any intellectual reservations, emotionally I was hooked and came away wanting more.
For some, the messy contradictions of this series will be its appeal, making it stand out from the crowd. For me, I kind of wish it would just pick a lane and either go full paranormal weirdness, grim-dark slasher or conventional detective drama. It's when it falls into the latter camp that Grace is at its strongest, proving that sometimes less really is more.
Grace: Looking Good Dead will air Sunday 24th April 2022 at 8pm on ITV and ITV Hub, with new episodes airing weekly. If you want to start reading Peter James' Roy Grace series, you can purchase the first three novels on Amazon.
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