PBS Import Van der Valk Avoids Its Network's Stuffy Trappings

No drawing room mysteries to see in this off-beat, hard-boiled cop show.


Van der Valk. PBS. Sunday, September 13, 9 p.m.

When the opening moments of PBS' set-in-Amsterdam cop series Van der Valk opened with a dramatic chase, bicycles careening around canals at a terrifying 12 miles an hour or less, I dropped my face into my hands. How many hours and brain cells of my life were to be lost to precious scenes of Dutch vegan dog-petting and tulip-sniffing?

The surprising answer is none at all. Perhaps the bike chase was just shot as a disguise to get the show past the PBS Dullard and Blandness Review Board before the real mayhem began, but Van der Valk is a pure, hard-boiled throwback to the days of Mickey Spillane and Jim Thompson.

Bullets fly and corpses leak. Beautiful dames wander in for a roll in the hay with cops of either sex and then beat it, unless they get arrested first. Weirdness abounds. One detective, investigating a murder in the religious erotica community (that is not a typo), frowningly inquires of an art librarian: "I'm not imagining this am I? A nun picking penises off a tree?"

Even Van der Valk's own parentage is a bit on the weird side. It's based on a 1960s series of homicide-squad mysteries by the British novelist Nicolas Freeling. After 10 books, Freeling so heartily detested his creation Piet van der Valk that he literally killed him off and made van der Valk's wife Arlette the lead character.

The British viewing public must have disagreed. The novels featuring Piet inspired one Brit TV series in the 1970s and another in the 1990s.  The newest version, which PBS is screening under its "Masterpiece Mystery" brand, aired in Europe earlier this year.

That "Masterpiece Mystery" label is another bit of disinformation. Van der Valk will never be mistaken for the work of Agatha Christie or any of the other British drawing-room mystery novelists.

Van der Valk (played by the ruggedly handsome Marc Warren, who had a recurring role in a season of The Good Wife a few years back) and his squadmates are a surly, hard-drinking lot. (Scrambled eggs and beer are not unknown for breakfast.) They treat everybodysuspects, witnesses, even victimswith brutal disdain. That assuredly includes one another.

When his scruffy, skirt-chasing sergeant Brad de Vries (British TV regular Luke Allen-Gale) muses that he's never heard of a library where one suspect is said to be a regular, van der Valk barks: "That's because it's full of books!"

Van der Valk is more tolerant with his bisexual second-in-command Lucienne Hassell (Mamie McCoy, Wallander), which makes the rest of the squad wonder if they've slept together. It seems unlikely. Though Van de Valk occasionally falls into a hookuphis antennae immediately go up when he hears a female bartender declare that "All politicians should be shot!"his taste in women pointedly excludes anything as normal as conversation. When he tries to kamikaze a blind date by declaring his profession as quantum physics, he's horrified when the delighted woman squeals: "I'm completely obsessed with string theory!! Are you?"

The squad's cases are as odd as they are, involving everything from renegade Transylvanian alchemists to "ethical fashion" designers whose aversion to killing animals pointedly does not cover one another. No show where a witness might casually declare that "I have one of my son's fingers in the freezer" ought to be missed.