By: Michael Hogan

What do Melanie Bunton, Geri Brown, Mel Adams, Victoria Chisholm and Emma Halliwell have in common? No, they’re not just the Spice Girls with their names mixed up. They’re also the fake IDs on multiple passports belonging to Shalom Brune-Franklin’s shady character in The Tourist. It's this type of gag that sums up the playful approach which has delighted audiences, and elevated it beyond what many anticipated.

Before 9pm on New Year’s Day, jokes weren’t something we associated with the Williams brothers. Sibling duo Jack and Harry are prolific writers of tense, twisty TV thrillers such as The Missing, Baptiste, Liar and Angela Black – all gripping mysteries but notably light on LOLs. But that’s all changed with current creation The Tourist.

Its eccentric characters, deadpan surrealism and heightened mood are a major departure from the pair’s previous formula, and while it's certainly a curveball for those familiar with their work, it's also a welcome one. The Tourist might just be the brothers’ best work yet.

The Tourist review

The cinematic six-parter has plenty else going for it. The Australian Outback setting, all dusty highways and vast skies, is visually spectacular. And leading man Jamie Dornan, with his hipster beard and tight-fitting T-shirts, isn’t exactly un-telegenic either.

The two female leads, enigmatic conwoman Luci Miller (Brune-Franklin) and probationary constable Helen Chambers (Danielle Macdonald) are both breakout stars. The latter, in particular, has been a personal favourite. The baddies – bear-like cowboy hitman Billy (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), micro-dosing Greek gangster Kostas (Alex Dimitriades) and cancer-suffering cop DI Lachlan Rogers (Damon Herriman) – are all intriguingly charismatic creations. Mainly, though, it’s the tonal difference that sets The Tourist apart.

The series reached its midway mark on the BBC last night (Sunday 9th January) with a blood-spattered shootout. After amnesiac anti-hero “The Man” rescued Helen from a flying bullet, she said: “You’re a life-saver… Literally.” When wounded Billy tumbled down a well, “The Man” couldn’t resist quipping: “Well, well, well.” Luci rolled her eyes, so he added a not-entirely-sincere: “Sorry”.

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This is a mainstream show where a traffic-stopping tailback is caused by copulating tortoises; where a pivotal plot point is provided by a cuddly koala; where an ill-tempered psychopath tells sheep to "eff off"; where two central characters are taking ballroom lessons, while sweetly pretending they’re Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. Nobody puts Jamie in the corner.

Running jokes include dimwit cop Sgt Rodney Lammon (Kamil Ellis) constantly getting called “Lemon” and Helen cheating on her “Trim Team” diet. Cottage cheese and beetroot again? Pass the chicken burger.

The Tourist
BBC/Two Brothers Pictures/Ian Routledge

The Tourist’s gallows wit comes as welcome relief from all the death and darkness of the Williams’ previous work. I can’t recall many moments of levity in Liar or Angela Black, which heaped endless traumas on leading lady Joanne Froggatt. Those shows were so relentlessly grim, they tipped into misery porn territory.

By contrast, crime caper The Tourist has offbeat swagger reminiscent of Killing Eve – to which the Williamses have a connection, via their former Fleabag collaborator Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Full of arresting images, The Tourist wears its filmic influences on its sleeve: the Coen brothers, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino. Its sandy vistas and twanging guitar are straight out of a spaghetti western. Indeed, the soundtrack often adds offbeat charm – see Dornan’s falsetto singalong to Bette Davis Eyes before the truck chase or Billy’s easy listening ringtone chirping away during the deadly caravan fight.

There are even romcom elements as Dornan and Brune-Franklin's exes flirt via sarky, screwball dialogue. He’s now on the run with Helen as his reluctant hostage. Their shyly blossoming friendship has the whiff of an indie roadtrip, with downtrodden Helen gradually regaining her confidence – hopefully enough to leave gaslighting, godawful fiancé Ethan Krum (Greg Larsen).

Booze is also used for comic effect. When "The Man" sips a beer in the aftermath of that diner bombing, he mutters: “F**k me, that’s lovely. I hope I didn’t use to be an alcoholic.” He and Helen later enjoy an amusingly tipsy Dirty Martini session, waking up with the thudding hangovers and memory gaps to prove it.

The Tourist
BBC/Two Brothers Pictures/Ian Routledge

Such humane touches help the series feel far less formulaic than previous Williams series and prevent the pulpy plot collapsing under the weight of its own implausibility. Jack and Harry clearly had a ball writing The Tourist and their enjoyment is infectious. The show took three years to make and the pair admitted that they were more closely involved in its making than on any other of their projects – and that hands-on approach has paid off. It’s palpably a labour of love.

A wild, witty, free-wheeling romp is the last thing we expected from the Williamses but The Tourist is all the better for it. It is undoubtedly the peak of their output so far. Dornan has never been better, either.

The question now is can they sustain the quality until the climax? And possibly beyond yet into a potential second run? That's been where too many of the Williams' previous work has slipped – particularly single-series wonders like Rellik, Strangers, One of Us and The Widow, with their grabby premises petering out into disappointingly divisive endings.

Viewers who’ve been unable to resist bingeing the iPlayer boxset know the answer already. The rest of us will find out over the next three Sundays (or right now on iPlayer, if you can't wait). Let’s hold onto Dornan’s whiskers and enjoy the ride.

The Tourist is available to stream on BBC iPlayer. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide or visit our Drama hub for more news, interviews and features.