Telewitterings: Decoding The Morse Franchise 

Posted on July 15, 2014 by

imageI stopped watching Inspector Morse somewhere midway through its run. I liked the characters, particularly Lewis, but the stories fell into very repetitive patterns, and Morse himself didn’t do that much for me. (I’ve posted about this before, and I know that many people really liked Morse. He was just a little too irascible for me.)
Inspector Lewis, on the other hand, turned my crank from the beginning, even though the scripts were wildly variable. Some of the mysteries were so poorly written it was painful; only a few were brilliant. What was interesting about it, though, was the character of Lewis. He was conceived as a sidekick, a foil. Morse is ascerbic, educated, all-seeing; Lewis is a good-natured plodder: bright enough, in his way, but very much the supporting act. It’s interesting to see a sidekick made into a leading man, and it often doesn’t work. They’re not built that way. They’re not cast that way. There’s a reason why John Barrowman is Captain Jack, in Torchwood, while goofy-looking Burn Gorman gets to be Owen.
But Kevin Whatley, the actor who plays Robbie Lewis, is very convincing as a pure soul, an honest and fundamentally sweet guy. The pitch here is he’s grown up, and got experienced–and hey, he was always a good cop. Unlike Morse, who lives on crossword puzzles, operas and intellectual epiphanies in magnificent isolation, Lews has a family life outside the office. We get to peer in on the family, a bit; in no small part, they exist to illuminate what Morse doesn’t have. And, interestingly, one of the things done by the Morse creators to shift poor Robbie from second banana status, to anoint him as the pillar of the new series–is lay waste to that family. Val is dead; the kids are, as Robbie puts it, “grown and flown.”
This works especially well because fans of the original series knew that family. The nigh-obligatory dead wife isn’t quite the hypothetical font of angst you get in other series. We knew her: she was around for years.
Despite the occasional appalling episode, it held my interest. And it didn’t hurt that the guy who played Lewis’s shiny new sidekick, Laurence Fox, was incredibly compelling.
Now, finally and delightfully, we have Endeavour. This is Morse’s backstory: it takes him back to the 1960s, and makes him the junior officer. Again this is a nifty tweak on the original formula, and one that sort of interesting. It is usually the highest ranked character who is solving the mysteries. Here we get Morse as underdog; it’s cool.
I went into Endeavor expecting more of what we got with Lewis: some good episodes, truly silly ones, and a whole lot of interplay between the cops. Plus history, Cold War, and old timey clothing. And to some extent that’s all been true. Shaun Evans, the actor playing Endeavor, is extremely sensitive and believable. The rest of the cast great too, and I love his obvious slash interest, Constable Strange.
The surprise has been this past season was incredibly well-written. “Nocturne,” in particular, started off with a horrific crime scene and though at every turn it seemed as though it couldn’t possibly deliver on the promises it was making, in the end it did just that.
I can’t help thinking there’s a Pop Culture Studies doctoral thesis in the making here. The history of these three shows is just fundamentally interesting. It went from the original Colin Dexter novels into Inspector Morse, which was wildly successful. Now there are these spinoffs, successful variations on the theme created without the original author’s input.
Anyone else been keeping up?
Either way: Tune in Tomorrow for a Guest Post by D.B. Jackson!

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