Whitstable Pearl: Charming Enough, but More Muddled Than Mysterious

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Whitstable Pearl: Charming Enough, but More Muddled Than Mysterious

Whether or not Acorn TV’s newest original mystery series, Whitstable Pearl, will work for you will depend entirely on how you respond to the phrase “cozy Scandi noir.”

That’s right: Cozy. Scandi. Noir.

Baffled and a bit put off by the combo? Probably best to cut your losses and move on. Struck like (cozy) lightning by the (gritty) ocean of possibilities such a mash-up might offer? Honestly, there’s not much I could add to get you more excited; just get thee to acorn.tv in time for the series’ big Monday premiere.

Everyone else, though—the confused but intrigued, the tentatively optimistic—go ahead and keep reading. This review is for you.

Adapted from former EastEnders writer Julie Wassmer’s cozy mystery series of the same, Whitstable Pearl stars Kerry Godliman (late of After Life but also, and perhaps more importantly, Taskmaster) as Pearl Nolan, a thirtysomething single mother who, when she’s not running what appears to be a wildly successful oyster restaurant, moonlights as a private detective. When a local oyster fisherman drowns, caught up in his own anchor line in the middle of the bay, a recently-widowed, tall, dark, and handsome Chief Inspector name Mike McGuire (Howard Charles, nearly unrecognizable after his recent turn as the mealy-mouthed Conductor in Shadow & Bone) decamps from London to take up the case… which, it turns out, was a case Pearl was already on, long before anyone turned up dead. Initially wary of each other’s interference, Pearl and DCI McGuire nevertheless grow to develop a begrudging respect (and possibly more) for one another as the case—and the season—wears on. That they’re absolutely bound for romance, I won’t make any promises; I haven’t read the books, and only two episodes were provided by Acorn for review. But I don’t think anyone who’s read even one cozy mystery and/or watched even one episode of any of television’s other plucky lady sleuth/stoic gentleman detective dramedies (Queens of Mystery, Pushing Daisies, both Fishers) will think it a stretch to assume that odds are in love’s eventual favor.

Or at least, you wouldn’t think it a stretch, until you turned on the first episode and find yourself having to squint through some solid Scandi-noir gloom just to catch them even maybe making eyes at each other. If the overall aesthetic of Wassmer’s books screams “seaside fun!” the aesthetic of the show screams “the ocean is a cold, briny mistress, and hell is the people who’d tell you otherwise.”

This grittiness (as background material provided for the press was keen to underscore) is absolutely by design. Optioned by Buccaneer Media (Marcella) with the explicit* goal of weaving some Scandi-flavored edge into Wassner’s cozier original vision, there was a reason it wasn’t TV-vet Wassner who producers Guy Hescott, Tony Wood and Anna Burns tapped to adapt Pearl’s Whitstable for the screen, but rather Norwegian filmmaker Øystein Karlsen (Dag, Lilyhammer). In Karlsen’s hands, the working fishing village of Whitstable—which is located just a few hours east of London and a few miles north of Canterbury—transforms from a quaint Kentish seaside community with a burgeoning gentrification problem to a Nordically shadowy den of double-crosses, secrets, and lies. But, you know—cozy!

(*Per Producer Guy Hescott: “Buccaneer is known for making sort of edgy shows, [so while the show is] set in Whitstable, [it has] a distinctive Scandinavian-type edge.” Per Executive Producer Tony Wood: “Internationally, we wanted to maintain [the cozy] flavor, but we also wanted to add some original elements as well, [and] AcornTV seemed to love the mix of the gritty and the romance in Øystein’s take on the character.”)

Frustratingly, with so much attention apparently being given to bringing in Karlsen’s style of Buccaneer-approved edginess, the thing that gets most overlooked in Whitstable Pearl’s first episode is the basic, Pilot 101 task of *establishing the facts*. I’ve told you that Pearl runs both an official oyster restaurant and an unofficial private detective agency, and that DCI McGuire has transferred to Whitstable from London after the death of his wife, but man does it take a long, confusing time for the show to do the same. It’s frustrating that so much of the show’s foundation is muddled, since the performances are solid across the board. As for Whitstable, well, the texture the show gets from having filmed everything on location, in the middle of a Kentish winter, is palpable, and the one place where Buccaneer’s gritty vision makes some sense. Whitstable is as much a hard-working, industrial town as it is a hipster haven for the dreaded DFLs (Down-From-Londoners) turning abandoned hardware stores into art galleries; that friction isn’t contrived.

Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with a tonally cross-bred approach. Some of the most interesting series in the last few years have been genre hybrids—Netflix’s Daybreak, Disney+’s WandaVision, Apple TV+’s Dickinson, DC Universe’s Harley Quinn. All shows whose ultimate success hinged on their creative teams making one cohesive show out of two (or more) discrete vibes. But while mixing genres can lead to artistic greatness (ooh—The Great, another excellent genre mix-up), the mere act of mashing together two wildly different things doesn’t, by definition, set you up for success (Hardy Boys, I’m looking at you). Put together at the right intervals, a pair of melodies can build a harmony. Put together at the wrong ones, though, and they can just end up discordant.

With so few episodes made available for review, it’s hard for me to say right now which side of the line Whitstable Pearl will fall on. With some shows (High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Wayne, David Makes Man), you know immediately that the big swings they’re taking are going to be worth it. With others (No Good Nick, Dispatches from Elsewhere), you need to give their ambition room to breathe. But while I want to be hopeful about what Whitstable Pearl might eventually be able to do with the heady mix of “cozy Scandi noir” Buccaneer was so keen on making real, the balance they’ve found thus far has been so muddled as to be not just figuratively discordant, but literally so, the folksy musical lines underscoring the cozy/comedic bits bleeding into the sparsely brittle stings underscoring the grittier parts with such acute dissonance it hurts the ears. Equally dissonant, the shadiness ascribed to Pearl’s mom, Dolly (Frances Barber), who reads as your classic sex-loving, larger-than-life old hippie of a cozy mystery parental figure, but who the show wants us to believe is hiding a grim secret. See also: the slow blossoming of the oyster restaurant’s teenaged head waitress, Ruby (Isobelle Molloy), whose chaste flirtation with Pearl’s son, Charlie (Rohan Nedd), would be desperately sweet… if it didn’t have as its starting place Ruby hitting rock bottom with the kind of drugs/secrets/bad boyfriend storyline that gets girls in normal Scandi noirs killed. The “cozy Scandi noir” mash-up is just weird, is my point, and not yet pulled off in a way that adds more to the story than it takes away.

Ultimately, I’m not sure what Whitstable Pearl is going to make of its big swing. As a fan of Acorn TV’s other cozy-adjacent mystery series, I hope it ends up letting itself lean further in that more light-hearted direction. As a fan of ambitious television, though, I hope it makes absolute hay of a genre mash-up I’d never have picked on my own.

Time will obviously tell. For now, at least, I’m just glad Acorn has continued to make ambition an Originals priority.

The first episode of Whitstable Pearl is set to hit Acorn TV Monday, May 24. New episodes will air weekly through the early summer.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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