I can’t remember the last time a TV show, book, or movie touched me the way the limited run series River has. A BBC production streaming in the States by Netflix, the story of a London police detective (Stellan Skarsgård) with social and mental issues is affecting in a way few “entertainments” ever are.
The six-episode series has an arc that is, in some ways, reminiscent of Memento. We pick up John River’s life in the aftermath of a trauma. The rest of the series consists of not only solving the murder of someone close to him, but of revealing bit by bit the depth and reasons for River’s condition.
This is a tough review to write because much of the joy of watching River is in learning about him as you go. Suffice to say he sees—and interacts—with what he calls “manifests.” These are people, usually dead, with whom he holds conversations. I’m not going to describe how real they are to him. Again, the viewer’s discovery is too key an element of the show. Elements of A Beautiful Mind are also present, though John River has one benefit John Nash lacked: he knows who is real and who isn’t. That doesn’t keep him from acting out in public with people no one else sees. It also doesn’t mean those “manifests” aren’t as real to him as Nash’s demons were.
The casting and acting are, as expected from the BBC, brilliant. I’ve been a fan of Skarsgård for years, but his performance as River places him on a plane with the finest actors of his generation. Taciturn, shy, and uncertain of his place in the world—you’ll know why by the end, but not until very near it—he is also a rock in his way. His idea of the right thing to do, while affected by his manifests, drives the rest of his team. His new partner (Adeel Akhtar) doesn’t know what to do with him at first and grows not only to look out for River—as do many of the other cops—he also comes to respect him, both for his police work and his dignity in coping with his situation. Their boss (Lesley Manville) understands River’s demons and sees him as a friend and confidant. The layers of complexity the characters display is poignantly described and heartbreaking to watch. The Beloved Spouse and I never got through the evening of an episode without discussing what we thought of River’s condition (our opinions of what was “wrong” with him evolved as we learned more) and his place among his peers.
Much more can be said, but I won’t. River is enthralling, and much of what makes it special is the manner in which the police solve the crimes to mesh with the ongoing revelation of River’s condition and history. Watch it without distraction and let the storytelling draw you in. There no tricks. No “How did he know to do that?” No “I see dead people.” It’s a story about a man whose life is one none of us would want. My heart broke, though I never felt sorry for him.
Television—storytelling in general—doesn’t get better than River.