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Arts & Culture

A Small Town Becomes A Hotbed Of Festering Secrets In 'Whitstable Pearl'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new British mystery series "Whitstable Pearl" is set in a small city on the English coast. The show, whose first two episodes start streaming today on ACORN TV, follows the adventures of its heroine, a local restaurant owner who helps the police solve murders. Our critic-at-large John Powers says the show's themes are familiar but no less appealing for that.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: When we talk about television nowadays, we tend to measure new programs against stellar ones, like "Fleabag" or "Watchmen" or "The Crown." Yet when we turn on the TV at the end of a hard day, we don't need or necessarily even want a show that's a peak experience. We're looking for something to ease into, a show that doesn't have challenging themes but does have characters we enjoy being with. Everyone has their own favorite kind of go-to shows, mine are crime dramas, especially the British models. I whooshed through the preview episodes of "Whitstable Pearl," a new series on Acorn TV, the Anglo-centric streaming service that clearly aims to have a show set in every picturesque town in the British Isles, including the imaginary ones.

Based on a set of novels by Julie Wassmer, "Whitstable Pearl" takes place in, yes, Whitstable, a touristy seaside city that, to judge from the show, has a murder rate to rival Medellin in its drug cartel heyday. Kerry Godliman stars as Pearl, a single mom who runs a seafood restaurant, The Whitstable Pearl, along with her widowed mother, Dolly, played by Frances Barber. Pearl also has a small detective agency where locals come to get help with their problems - you know, a missing spouse or trash cans that keep getting moved. Invariably, these problems end up with a corpse or two lying around.

Pearl's work keeps her stumbling across a newcomer to Whitstable, Mike McGuire, a Black cop who's transferred down from London after the death of the wife he adored. Played with taciturn charisma by Howard Charles, McGuire initially mocks Pearl's gumshoe aspirations. But seasoned viewers can tell that two things are going to happen - Pearl will turn out to be a sharp detective, and the two are destined to become close, maybe romantically. Pearl's mom has hopes.

Here, as the two work in the kitchen, she notes that Pearl's son Charlie will soon be heading off to university.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHITSTABLE PEARL")

FRANCES BARBER: (As Dolly) Charlie showed me the prospectus for his university. Ignoring it won't make it go away. He's going to move out sooner or later.

KERRY GODLIMAN: (As Pearl Nolan) Yeah, well, not today.

BARBER: (As Dolly) Have you considered that this might be the perfect opportunity for you to live a little, to fill the inevitable void with something new, someone even? When was the last time you went on a date?

GODLIMAN: (As Pearl) Well, I'm a bit more quality conscious than you.

BARBER: (As Dolly) Quantity's more my thing. Do you even remember what a penis looks like? You know what happens to a wooden boat when it's been out of the water too long?

GODLIMAN: (As Pearl) Which part of me are you comparing to a wooden boat?

POWERS: The show is rooted in the notion, made canonical by Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett in the 1920s, that small towns are essentially hotbeds of festering secrets - buried crimes, decades-old resentments, illicit sexual encounters. While this conceit probably reached its delirious pinnacle in "Twin Peaks," it's still hard at work today. You find it in the enjoyable new Australian movie, "The Dry," which you can catch on VOD, and on HBO's current series "Mare Of Easttown," set in small-town Pennsylvania, which also centers on a sleuthing single mother with a sassy mom who wants her to go out on dates.

Now, in terms of ambition, "Whitstable Pearl" isn't in the same league as "Mare Of Easttown," whose blue-collar realism is anchored by a tremendous performance from Kate Winslet. Mare bristles with all the lived-in jaggedness that a character like Pearl would have in real life but that would sink a series as cutely titled as a "Whitstable Pearl." Where Winslet is clearly working hard, putting on weight and a much-discussed Delaware County accent, Godliman doesn't break a sweat. She offers a more traditional kind of TV heroine - a warm, salt-of-the-earth type who's smarter than you might think.

Yet if "Whitstable Pearl" is slighter than "Mare Of Easttown," it's also less taxing. The violence isn't grizzly. Family life isn't emotional carnage. And we don't feel life's darkness glowering down at us. Instead, in classic episodic TV fashion, Pearl and McGuire catch a new murder each week. And though the plots aren't exactly crafted with a clockmaker's precision, the puzzles are tricky enough to hold us and offer the satisfaction of closure. Besides, it's pleasant to spend time in Whitstable, a gentrifying city with moody skies, oyster beds and boats bobbing in the harbor.

And the cast is fun to watch, Godliman makes a very likeable Pearl. Charles' McGuire is excellent at laconic impatience. And Barber, who's played leading roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, steals all her scenes as Dolly, who may have secrets of her own. Does all this make "Whitstable Pearl" a great show? Far from it. But if you're a fan of series like "Inspector Morse," "Midsomer Murders" or "C.B. Strike," I suspect that on a sleepy Monday evening, you'll find it plenty good enough.

GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's critic at large. He reviewed the new British mystery series "Whitstable Pearl." It starts streaming today on Acorn TV.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR. My guest will be Annette Gordon-Reed, the author of a new book about the holiday Juneteenth, commemorating the day that enslaved African Americans in Texas were told that slavery had ended - that was two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed. Her book is part memoir, part history. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her book "The Hemingses Of Monticello." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with assistance today from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN ALLISON'S "GREEN AL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.