I had high hopes for this comedy-drama about two mismatched private eyes, mainly because it comes from writer Howard Overman, whose work on E4's Misfits turned a seemingly trivial delinquent riff on Heroes into a BAFTA-winning hit. I was hoping some of that magic would rub off on the less fantastical concerns of a lighthearted detective series. Sadly, while Vexed did have its moments, it was more miss than hit...
As befits his name, ex-cop Jack Armstrong (Toby Stephens) is a fortysomething jack-the-lad and one half of a detective partnership with forthright Kate Bishop (Lucy Punch), where they're given inexplicable access to crime scenes. Vexed doesn't explain why Jack and Kate are given so much investiture and appear to be the sole investigators of serious crimes the police should be leading. From a storytelling standpoint I can understand this decision (it avoids dull procedure and formula that involving police always entails), but it is noticeably silly. I guess it's just something you have to just swallow and accept.
Jack and Kate are essentially two regular people able to indulge their love of a good "whodunnit?" in the real world, with a little inside help from a forensic analyst (Ronny Jhutti), operating from a café adjacent to the police station. But while they're professionals in the sense they get paid for their efforts (well, assumedly -- it's not clear who hired them!), both carry the scent of two unconventional middle-class hobbyists. Kate is the more committed and proficient one (balancing her unusual job with the duties of a loving wife), whereas the distractible Jack often uses perks of the job to chase skirt.
Both don't seem particularly worried they're dealing with a serial-killer in this opening episode, either -- a predator who kills single women after wooing them by faking commonality in their lifestyles (using access to their supermarket loyalty card's data). Now, it's not essential in a blithe murder-mystery that the detectives grapple with the torment of chasing cold-blooded murderers, because plenty of shows have diluted homicide for armchair thrills (Monk, Murder, She Wrote, Midsomer Murders, etc), but somehow Vexed troubled me. I think it was because neither Jack or Kate appear to be particularly skilled, really, so there isn't a subconscious assurance that these barmy duo aren't actually hindrances that get lucky.
The casting raises its own concerns. Lucy Punch is likable, cute, and plays the stable half of the partnership quite well, although there's not much depth to Kate yet. Toby Stephens gets to play the crazier half of this double-act and, while I've enjoyed the actor's dramatic roles and his comedic Robin Hood guest-appearances were side-splitting, he doesn't get the balance right here. Jack was too broadly comical, to the detriment of believing he's even interesting in solving cases. Some of that was intentional (Jack essentially used the killer's modus operandi to get into the knickers of a woman he met in a supermarket!), but Jack often looked too distracted and indifferent about the case in hand. Sometimes it was like watching Stephens doing a Hugh Grant impression in a rom-com -- which was admittedly quite entertaining at times, because it involved more emotional content, but that's not the show Vexed is billed as.
Both character aren't interesting to me yet, but they're not beyond salvage. The bigger complaint is that, together, Punch and Stephens don't appear to have much chemistry. They're not lovers on the show, but there's clearly meant to be a "will-they/won't-they" aspect to their partnership, and at the very least they should spark off each other like close friends or squabbling siblings would. The only scene that really sold their playful bond was a funny moment with Kate causing Jack intentional pain by tapping on a hidden mic to cause havoc with his listening earpiece, and they weren't physically together for that scene!
Overall, Vexed does show some promise, and the leads are capable actors who perhaps need time to find the nuances to their characters and develop a rapport. Overman's script was sporadically witty, fast-paced throughout, and the mystery was solved nicely (I didn't guess the culprit, which is of prime importance for this genre), but it wasn't very funny and the content felt stretched by 20-minutes. The fact there are only three hour-long episodes means there probably won't be time for Overman to rethink or polish certain areas, or for the actors to totally bed-in with their roles, which is a shame. There's a great opportunity for an amusing dose of Sunday night sleuthing the family can enjoy, but Vexed just left me feeling... well, slightly vexed.
WRITER: Howard Overman
DIRECTOR: Matt Lipsey
CAST: Lucy Punch, Toby Stephens, Roger Griffiths, Ronny Jhutti, Rory Kinnear, Naomi Bentley, Nicholas Tizzard, Sian Brooke, Peter Moreton, Peter Bramhill, Katharine Burford, Alton Letto & Daniella Dessa
TRANSMISSION: 15 August 2010 - BBC2/HD, 9PM
Update: As has been pointed out in comments below, the characters are actually plainclothes police detectives and introduced themselves as such. My apologies, but that fact escaped my attention for a number of reasons while watching the episode.