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TIT

'Masterpiece Mystery! Baptiste: Season One'
(Tchéky Karyo, Jessica Raine, Tom Hollander, Anastasia Hille, et al / 2-Disc DVD / PG-13 / 2020 / PBS)

Overview: From the writers of The Missing comes Baptiste, a thrilling drama series starring Tchéky Karyo as the insightful but stubborn investigator Julien Baptiste.

Julien and his wife move to Amsterdam to help look after their grandchild, but the beautiful streets, canals and houses of Amsterdam hide dark, deadly secrets.

DVD Verdict: Looked at more philosophically, 'The Missing' (series 1 and 2) and now 'Baptiste' - from writers Harry and Jack Williams - seem to offer a multi-layered cross-cultural experience, given that they are in real life British-Belgian cooperative ventures giving actors from various countries roles as characters (not always from those same countries) interacting in positive and negative ways.

A surprisingly gritty (and far-from-positive) review of modern European realities is offered in the process.

While 'The Missing' series one harked back to a more traditional "something bad happens to Brits while on a continental holiday" theme, it homed in on a Northern Irish guy teaming up over the longer-term with a French detective (the titular Julien Baptiste).

It also featured British residents in Belgium-pretending-to-be-France doing horrible things with a measure of impunity.

In 'The Missing' series two, Frenchman Baptiste travelled to Germany to work in the environment of remnant British armed forces still stationed in that country, with again very dark and dirty things going on against the background of that very specific community and environment (also extending to the Middle East given many of the key characters' military service out there).

Now, with 'Baptiste' - a series ostensibly focusing still more closely on the wonderfully philosophical (and very authentically observed) detective played by Tchéky Karyo, what is really on display is freedom of movement and the roles it plays in a very mixed-up modern Europe.

More aware British viewers of 'Baptiste' will probably be more sensitive than most to the (unusual nature of the) idea - here writ large - of people shuttling between The Netherlands and the UK in a matter of hours, for various good and bad purposes up to and including contract killing.

So much for "the precious stone set in a silver sea which serves it in the office of a wall or as a moat defensive to a house, against the envy of less happier lands"!

Few films or series you can think of have ever offered such an "open" portrayal of our island or emphasized to this extent the mobility that is now possible, and the degree to which the integration process is achieved.

And as Karyo himself notes in the DVD's Special Features, a quick visit to "those streets" in Amsterdam (now more accessible than ever) represents an ethical and philosophical dilemma for many of us; all the more so in the face of the potential desire we might actually feel, given the fact that we cannot with hand on heart dismiss the women involved (rarely Dutch themselves) as unattractive and only of interest to the desperate (as might have been the case in other places at other times).

'Baptiste' the series pushes the official Dutch line that having things out in the open may help the prostitutes involved enjoy greater safety, better health and somewhat fuller freedom of choice.

But that freedom in 21st-century Europe is apparently accompanied in deeper, darker layers by trafficking activity from various quarters that is parasitic upon it; and the efforts of Europol to counteract that also take center stage in this series, as familiar actress Jessica Raine features as a British detective working for that supranational body in an all-consuming battle that for her is both professional and personal.

So French and British and Dutch detectives cooperate to combat ruthless Romanian gangs trafficking young Polish women. There is a high body count associated with all that (and a threat posed to Julien's (British) wife and family); and the picture painted of today's EU is somehow one of hypocrisy and unequal struggle, and most of the piece is sad and moody.

As in 'The Missing' series, as a whole, the web of connections between characters is incredibly complex, with many a sub-story thrown in to flesh out the main one, mostly very touchingly or interestingly, and with the emphasis on diversity and eccentricity of experience.

Indeed, whilst 'The Missing's first series featured a pretty "immaculate" Baptiste that hardly ever said a wrong thing or let us down, the Baptiste in 'Baptiste' is an older and far more flawed figure; though still one in many ways proving irresistible.

But, considering his being called in here as an "expert", one may question how often his sleuthing skills and experience really show, or make a difference?

Rather, this version of Baptiste is discovering layer after layer of disconcerting or downright horrible things in pretty much the same way as we in the audience are.

Ironically, then, the series ends - as did the first 'Missing' - with some kind of tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that is telling, touching, but also a bit desperate-looking, considering what has gone before.

Indeed, virtually all the main characters here go through a great deal, but none more so than Edward Stratton, as portrayed by Tom Hollander.

For my money, the character moves from being an unconvincing and ineffectual looking one at the beginning of the first episode to being an amazing, resilient (if still unassuming) hero by the time the final credits role.

Perhaps no such person could really exist, but it matters little as the acting credentials of Hollander are by this stage beyond doubt. It's a great part for him, to which he does full justice.

While 'Baptiste' is pretty low on laughs, Hollander's Stratton - surprisingly - offers a few of them, as does Karyo's Baptiste and even Raine's Genevieve Taylor.

I mean, a sub-story about a technology-obsessed 21st-century peeping tom is also salutary, as well as somehow quite amusing in a dark way.

Not funny in any way, but far more human and nuanced than you might expect, are the excellent portrayals of the Romanian gangsters by Alec Secareanu as Constantin and Zachary Baharov as Nicolae.

Overall, 'Baptiste' is (and should be seen as) more than just a detective series. It's really a kind of sociological project observing - darkly and I would say quite effectively - the Europe in which we live - and the EU which Brits ultimately decided they might want to escape from. This is a Widescreen Presentation (1.78:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs.

www.PBS.org





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