Cinemax Can’t Wring Any Magic Out of J.K. Rowling’s C.B. Strike MysteriesPhoto: Steffan Hill/CINEMAX TV Reviews C.B. Strike
A damaged man with a strange past. An indefatigably efficient female assistant/apprentice/sexual tension device. And a mystery.
For the record, everyone in my household really enjoyed the Harry Potter series. We all liked the books despite the contemptuously slovenly editing (I could have taken a hundred pages off the last one without losing anything but repetitive descriptors), and we liked the movies despite their relentlessly escalating obsession with missing the most meaningful parts of the books. As far as I’m concerned, it’s always a good thing when a writer is successful. It makes chickenshit agents and editors believe that maybe they, too, could take a chance on a novel and end up affluent. So no disrespect to J.K. Rowling for what she’s actually good at.
Now: Somebody clearly got a perfect score on NEWT-level Dark Arts at wizard school because there is basically no other, more logical or compelling explanation for “Why has Cinemax brought C.B. Strike to the screen?” There’s not a single box left unticked on the British Mystery Cliché Inventory. I double-checked.
A physically and emotionally damaged man, a brooding ex-military officer who’s lost a foot in combat and drinks a lot, Alastor Moody is a disgruntled and paranoid ex-Auror… Sorry. I drifted off. Cormoran Strike! My bad. Strike (Tom Burke) sleeps in his office, gets soused, can’t hold a relationship together, has clients who don’t pay, and takes cases anyway, presumably because of either his great big heart or an unfortunate craving for self-induced Obliviation spells—sorry, I meant to say laudanum—that takes hold if he isn’t distracted by a logic problem with violent and lurid variables. He’s just got a brand new, freshly minted assistant from the temp agency, Hermione Granger. Sorry: Robin. Played by Holliday Grainger. She’s pathologically brisk, fiendishly efficient despite having just got there, and is of course a Wizarding-level Gal Friday for a Troubled Private Dick.
They roam the streets of London (and occasionally grim quadrants of the northeast, as dictated by Rowling’s penchant for the shout-out to grim locales or a production-team Hail Mary to provide some relief from tedium) solving crimes the police cannot, because… reasons. They succeed. Because reasons. The plots are ponderous and at times kind of collapse under their own weight. At others, they just get tossed aside, as if they’ve become too heavy for the characters to lug around. Of the three stories (three, two and three episodes, respectively), the middle one probably comes closest to becoming interesting, and hiding in its dull, glassy-eyed thousand-yard-stare of a production is the glimpse of a spark: It both optimizes the flirtatious chemistry between Burke and Grainger and gets a little weird. Which is intriguing because it takes a pretty sharp jab at a bunch of writers and publishing cognoscenti with massively distended egos and vast libraries of lies and violent urges and repulsive self-justifications. One could be forgiven for imagining there was some “there” there. Alas, it does not prove sustainable.
There’s one minor variant to Exhausted Trope City to be noted, which is Cormoran Strike’s highly fleshed-out (arguably corpulent) backstory. It has something to do with his dad having been a rock star and his mom a famous and famously murdered model. It comes up repeatedly and sometimes at length. Perhaps it is clear why this is important in the books. In the series, it’s just there, like an unloaded gun on a nondescript mantelpiece. But, you know, it’s slightly non-standard. Because public figure, private investigator, right? Right? Sigh.
It must be noted that Burke and Grainger both deliver charming performances despite the frightfully derpy material they have to work with. If only they had wands, perhaps they could conjure some fun writing or some extra-fascinating production design or a brilliant send-up of a genre that has been done to the kind of death where there is unfortunately still one last Horcrux to find so you can’t really be at peace and have to go back and duke it out again. Feel me? Like, they could have done that. Or any number of things that would have… you know, not been a Squib. Bummer.
Once upon a time, Rowling concocted a richly detailed, conceit-tastic fantasy series for younger readers, and those books were adapted into films with all-too-common and unneccesary stab wounds to their scripts, but which were often quite wonderful and always studded with casting gems. So a world dotted with secret schools for wizards became part of our vernacular. C.B. Strike features several talented performers, but no one could Transfigure this script into anything very compelling. It’s wall-to-wall Muggles here, guys. Sorry.
C.B. Strike premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.