I can’t find enough good things to say about the BBC / Netflix drama River.
On paper it could have been an awful clichéd mess played for cheap laughs. A damaged detective talks to dead people! Not in his head but out loud. In public.
Oh the fun that could he had with that. It could allow us a veneer of concern whilst we laugh at his antics as though it were some cheap sensationalist Channel 5 fodder.
It doesn’t do that. There are laughs though and there is warmth. It is a hard watch but it’s not relentlessly pointlessly grim for the sake of it. The main character is trying to deal with the unsolved murder of his partner and grief of losing his friend Stevie.
The show explores both the criminal investigation and how River manages his grief and ‘manifests’ (never ghosts – not that type of show) of the dead. By turns they may taunt him, confront him or offer ideas about how they died. They may play broken angel as his conscience (Stevie) or smirking devil tempting him to give in to his worst impulses (Cream).
He gets assigned a partner, Ira, to help with the investigation but also to offer support. There’s no judgement, no hidden motive.
Ira’s clearly shocked by River’s conversations with people that aren’t there but he also understands that they can be an important, a way to think things through or have the conversations he couldn’t have when his friend and partner was alive.
River’s state allows him the empathy to talk to those suffering and derided and ignored as ‘nutters’.
Equally, Ira is not afraid to call him out when River’s conversations become dangerous or violent. He respects River and extends his friendship even after being repeatedly rebuffed.
River’s visits to the police therapist, Rosa, follow an all too familiar path of denial, dismissal and evasion. These scenes are uncomfortable. There is no instant connection and in one instance a truly horrible group therapy session. With patience and compassion things do start to get better as trust develops between Rosa and River.
Some of these scenes really capture why some people have an aversion to counselling and therapy. The doubt about how much value there is in talking about events that can’t be changed and a disdain of open displays of emotion.
There is also an inner bristling against the inherent imbalance of the client / therapist relationship. You want to know all about me and my darkest moments and pain yet I know nothing of you?!
It also shows the danger of making assumptions about background and motivations of the people trying to help you.
I found the show to be a sensitive handling of mental health issues, dealing with grief as well as a fascinating crime investigation. It’s not a light show and doesn’t lend itself to binge watching. There’s a sense of wanting to know what happens next but also a need to let it all sink in.
The performances are incredible and the characters fully formed and flawed all at the same time. Nicola Walker’s performance is mesmerising and mischievious as Stevie whilst Eddie Marsan is compelling and terrifying as the deceptively named Cream.
I haven’t genuinely enjoyed a show like this for a long time. There’s a lot to think about and unlike most shows I would happily watch it all again.