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'London Kills': A Cop Series That Keeps You Coming Back For More


This is FRESH AIR. The British television series "London Kills" focuses on a London police unit that specializes in murder cases. Season one premiered in February on the streaming service Acorn TV, which drops the second season on Monday. Our critic-at-large John Powers says that like him, you'll probably watch it quickly.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If you're like me, you've been corrupted by this era of peak TV. Where people once happily watched "Friends" or "L.A. Law" because they offered amusing weeknight fare, we now want and almost expect shows to be special - if not timely brilliant or epic in scope, at least rife with zeitgeisty resonance.

Of course, most TV doesn't rise to this level, and that's OK. It can still provide old-fashioned pleasures. Take the series "London Kills," an original production of Acorn TV, the streaming service so steeped in Anglophilia it's like swimming in Cadbury's chocolate. "London Kills" is, in most ways, an ordinary cop show. Yet it's compelling enough that, having raced through the five episodes of season one in a single sitting, I did the same with what they were able to show me of season two.

The series follows a crack Scotland Yard murder team led by detective inspector David Bradford, played by Hugo Speer as a symphony in G - gruff, growling, gray-stubbled. Bradford's wife mysteriously went missing, which makes him prickly with detective sergeant Vivienne Cole - that's Sharon Small - who's the squad's sharpest mind but apt to do things her own way. Both get along with sensible, sleepy-eyed Rob Brady - a likeable bear of a detective constable deftly played by Bailey Patrick - and with Billie Fitzgerald, that sweet-faced Tori Allen-Martin, a trainee whose empathy can get her into trouble.

Episodes begin in classic fashion with a murder victim - a dead man hanging from a tree, a woman's body found by the Thames and our detectives turning up to sort through red herrings on the way to catching the killer. As it happens, one of these killings has links to the disappearance of Bradford's wife, which is being investigated by another unit. Here, Bradford and Cole clash after he demands to know why she'd met with his wife in the run-up to her disappearance.


SHARON SMALL: (As Vivienne Cole) Sarah called me and asked to meet. I mean, I didn't feel that I could say no.

HUGO SPEER: (As David Bradford) Oh, I bet you didn't. So what did my wife want to talk about?

SMALL: (As Vivienne Cole) Well, she mentioned that your marriage was in trouble.

SPEER: (As David Bradford) Why didn't you tell me this before?

SMALL: (As Vivienne Cole) Because I didn't feel it could help.

SPEER: (As David Bradford) It's an indication of her state of mind.

SMALL: (As Vivienne Cole) And that's why I spoke to the missing persons inquiry.

SPEER: (As David Bradford) Which explains why they asked me so many questions about my marriage, my sex life. It's all down to you.

SMALL: (As Vivienne Cole) I'm not apologizing.

SPEER: (As David Bradford) No. Why change the habit of a lifetime? So why come clean now?

SMALL: (As Vivienne Cole) Because we're a team. And now you're back at work, I don't want to keep any secrets from you.

SPEER: (As David Bradford) The thing is, Vivienne, you're not a team player, are you?

POWERS: Season one ended with a cliffhanger that shifted our sense of a main character. As season two begins, the squad's members are now keeping secrets, and Cole decides to investigate Bradford's vanished wife. Meanwhile, they still have to deal with the endless allotment of corpses buried in back gardens and blokes bludgeoned in pubs.

Now, "London Kills" is not what you'd call ambitious. A lot of the writing and directing is pedestrian, with the lazy habit of bridging scenes with meaningless shots of East End buildings. It shows us the high-rise known as The Gherkin so often that it seems downright Freudian. Yet the lead performers boast the sturdy realism of good British TV acting. Small is especially good at capturing how Cole's mind never stops bubbling. And it serves up talented guest stars whose faces ring a bell. You find yourself saying, isn't that Daisy, the assistant cook from "Downton Abbey?"

What makes the show so watchable is that it merges two slightly contradictory forms of binge-worthiness. On the one hand, it has the ritualized repetition of the network cop series you call up on the DVR or Netflix when you're tired after work and want to watch familiar officers restore order to our chaotic modern universe. Brisk and trickily plotted, every episode of "London Kills" offers that reassuring form of closure. At the same time, the search for Bradford's wife gives the series a forward momentum that keeps you queuing up the next episode.

Although the story isn't novelistic like "The Wire" or a surprise machine like "The Bodyguard" (ph), it's something of a page-turner, so to speak. It makes you wonder, is this the sort of show in which some of our heroes have done bad things? Or is it simply a conventional police show pretending to be something edgier? Not having seen the whole of season two, I don't know the answer, but I'm eager to find out. Nobody would ever accuse "London Kills" of standing astride the summit of peak TV. But if you're looking for something to keep you entertained during a couple of long summer nights, it makes a great change from "Law And Order."

DAVIES: John Powers reviewed the second season of "London Kills" on Acorn TV. Monday on FRESH AIR, Terry's guest will be Emily Nussbaum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic for The New Yorker. Her new book of essays is "I Love To Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution" (ph). She'll talk about how the #MeToo movement has altered the way she considers the work of terrible men, why she thinks you don't have to feel guilty about watching TV instead of reading a book and more. Hope you can join us.


DAVIES: Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.