Is ABC TV’s new, 10 part drama Harrow intelligent in a bad kind of way, i.e. smug and contrived, or idiotic in a good kind of way – like a guilty pleasure? After watching the first two episodes, I remain in two minds. We are certainly told from the outset that the titular protagonist Dr. Daniel Harrow (Ioan Gruffudd) is himself rather brilliant: a forensic pathologist with Holmes-like powers of deduction, who (as the press notes put it) “solves the cases the others can’t.”
Harrow is a maverick and a rule breaker, and also a man with fine taste in films. When we first meet him he is in a morgue, feet up on a metal counter, watching High Noon projected onto a sheet pinned to the wall. Behind him is a dead clown – literally – with Heath Ledger, Joker-like make-up smeared across its face. Just an average day in the office, for the forensic pathologist who solves the cases the others can’t.
Harrow’s boss (Robyn Malcolm) enters the scene and blasts the pathologist for goofing off. This provokes from him a witty riposte and a diagnosis of the clown’s death, which smugly concludes: “He died twisting his neck doing yoga in his make-up, wearing it because it brought back tender memories of all those children whose lives he destroyed…You really shouldn’t interrupt a guy watching High Noon.”
As a big admirer of the classic 1952 western – which is, in fact, one of my favourite films of the genre – I agree with Harrow on that last point. But still: who watches High Noon, at work, on a projector? Let alone in morgue, near a corpse? And what kind of line is “You really shouldn’t interrupt a guy watching High Noon,” anyway?
You can’t take Harrow seriously, nor are you supposed to laugh at it.
It’s clear from the start that co-creators Leigh McGrath and Stephen M. Irwin (also the head writer) aren’t suggesting Harrow as a work of social realism. But even with the caveat that this is pure escapism, nothing about the aforementioned scene rings true, and Ioan Gruffudd’s delivery is serious and egotistic – with no trace of fun or self-awareness. This issue keeps flaring up: you can’t take Harrow seriously, but nor are you supposed to laugh at it.
The core narrative integrates a ‘This Time It’s Personal’ premise. It’s a weird one, involving concrete-covered bones pulled out of Brisbane River; I’ll be spoiler averse and leave it at that. Harrow gets a steady stream of gnarly circumstances to investigate, working in a morgue where the city’s unnatural deaths are brought in.
The initial characterisation of the protagonist as a feet up, film-watching loafer evolves into a portrait of a workaholic whose devotion to his job cost him his marriage, and tests his relationship with his teenage daughter, Fern. She is played by newcomer Ella Newton, who delivers a fine and nuanced performance, squeezing a high impact and robust presence out of limited screen time. No doubt we’ll be seeing more of her.
In the titular role, the Welsh-born Ioan Gruffudd channels forehead-heavy actors such as Nicolas Cage, juggling dramatic responses in the spaces around his eyes.
In the second episode, Fern and her boyfriend Callan (Hunter Page-Lochard, aka the protagonist in Cleverman) make out on the couch while an old black and white movie plays on the television. It is the 1931 version of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. Does this classic film bear any special significance? Like the earlier nod to High Noon, the hat tip feels calculated but pointless, as if the writers were trying to be clever but forgot to have a reason behind their supposed wit.
The first five episodes (one and two forming the extent of this review) were shot by cinematographer Robert Humphreys with an antique, musty glaze, as if infused with the smell of old socks. Director Kate Dennis, whose recent work includes helming episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, establishes a dank, neo-noir-ish tone in the debut episode, handing over the directorial reigns to Peter Salmon, Tony Tilse and Catriona McKenzie.
In the titular role, the Welsh-born Gruffudd (who played Mr Fantastic in 2005’s Fantastic Four) channels forehead-heavy actors such as Nicolas Cage, juggling dramatic responses in the spaces around his eyes. He cranes his eyebrows and manipulates creases above his nose, by turn looking unintentionally comedic, obnoxious, quizzical, and like a man in desperate need of a hug.
Is Gruffudd’s performance intelligent in a bad kind of way, or idiotic in a good kind of way? That is the $64,000 question. About both the performance, and the show itself.
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Harrow commences on ABC TV on Friday 9 March 2018, at 8.30pm