People think it must be jolly good fun, writing a negative review. And yes, honestly, sometimes it is: oh, the perfectly-crafted putdowns you can throw at a terrible TV show! Oh the clever barbs you can pen! I also have to admit that I love to read a brilliantly-scathing review myself. (Jay Rayner’s occasional damning restaurant write-ups being a particular delight.)
But much of the time, when I’m about to slag off an upcoming TV drama, I actually feel pretty guilty. All that time and love and effort that has gone into making this and offering it up to the viewing public! And yet… and yet…
So I take little pleasure in writing to tell you that Van Der Valk is, in this reviewer’s opinion, a massive disappointment. Sorry.
The drama is back with three feature-length episodes on ITV. I say it’s back, because of course Van Der Valk was a classic of 1970s British TV with a catchy theme tune which made it to the top of the charts (but did not make it into this reboot, except for a tiny little bit of the melody).
Based loosely on the novels by Nicolas Freeling, the original series starred the late Barry Foster as Commissaris Simon “Piet” Van Der Valk, a cynical but intuitive detective who solved murders and fought crime in the city of Amsterdam. He returned for a couple of series in the early ’90s – and now Van Der Valk has been revived for 2020, this time with Marc Warren in the lead role.
Warren’s Van Der Valk is an English-accented Dutch detective who sulks around town solving crimes, generally being a maverick and disobeying his exasperated boss, Chief Commissaris Dahlman (Emma Fielding). His partner and second-in-command (Inspector Lucienne Hassell, played by Maimie McCoy) tolerates his antics and supports him, because she knows he is brilliant and possibly troubled. New to the team is Elliot Barnes Worrell as over-keen rookie officer Job Cloovers, who initially annoys Van Der Valk – but wouldn’t you know it, his skills soon prove useful.
Completing the core cast are Luke Allen-Gale as Sergeant Brad De Vries (key traits: unambitious, constantly eating) and Darrell D’Silva as pathologist Hendrik Davis (key traits: talented, constantly hungover).
In the first episode, the team must swing into action when two seemingly-unrelated men are found dead in different parts of Amsterdam on the same day, and another young left-wing activist goes missing. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of drama going on in the political world with left-wing and far-right politicians facing off in an election campaign; and is there also an art world link? Van Der Valk is on the case.
It took me four attempts to finish the first episode, because I just kept getting bored. Everything seemed kind of… clunky? Perhaps it’s the kind of drama that would have benefitted from being a little bit funnier and a little bit more wry, which is what saved ITV’s recent detective drama McDonald & Dodds from its own tortured plots (thanks, Jason Watkins). Perhaps the actual murder mystery itself could have been more of a fun puzzle, which is part of what fans love about Midsomer Murders?
Or perhaps it was the characters, none of whom are particularly engaging (except for Emma Fielding as the boss, who has potential; she also has an excellent dog). After the first episode, I just find Commissaris Piet Van Der Valk kind of irritating and charmless. He also seems like he’d be a really, really annoying person to work with.
On the plus side, there are the locations! Visually, Van Der Valk is a treat. The drama takes us through the canals of central Amsterdam and into the famous canal houses, but it also takes us to some lesser-known corners of the city. And then there’s the crown jewel of episode one: a visit to the actual Rijksmuseum. Despite the murders and despite the dodgy drama, this is a TV show which should make you want to book a holiday to the Dutch capital… just as soon as the pandemic has passed.
Van Der Valk airs on Sundays at 9/8c on PBS Masterpiece in the US
Check out what else is on in the UK with our TV Guide.