Review: Harrow 1×1-1×2 (Australia: ABC; UK: Alibi)

Ioan Gruffudd is a houseboat? No, wait, he's House… on a boat

Ioan Gruffudd in Harrow
Ioan Gruffudd in Harrow

In Australia: Fridays, 8.30pm, ABC
In the UK: Tuesdays, 9pm, Alibi. Starts July 17

The globalisation of TV is a funny old thing, resulting in some odd paradoxes. Consider the career of Ioan Gruffudd, a fine actor who speaks Welsh as a first language. Naturally, he got his first big break on S4C’s Pobol Y Cwm (People of the Valley), S4C being the government’s attempt to preserve the Welsh language from the effects of globalisation and English’s worldwide dominance.

However, given S4C’s drama output isn’t huge, it’s unsurprising that Gruffudd went off to London to study at RADA, before getting his first big breaks in the BBC’s 1996 remake of Poldark and then ITV’s Hornblower TV films, where he naturally had to put on English accents and spoke English. They in turn led to starring roles in US films Black Hawk Down (directed by Englishman Ridley Scott) and superhero movie Fantastic Four, in which he played Americans.

Then US TV shows beckoned, with first the short-lived Century City, then Ringer then ABC’s Forever, in which he played a forensics examiner who just happened to be immortal, and so was a font of all knowledge and an almost Sherlock Holmes-like ability to read people and clues. In the latter two shows, despite both being made in the US, Gruffudd played English characters – globalisation here allowing for local diversity, not just homogenisation.

And yet… while Gruffudd has since returned home to the UK to do shows such as ITV’s Liar, now he’s gone to Australia to star in ABC’s Harrow. Guess what? Despite the show being Australian, he plays an English forensic examiner who’s a font of all knowledge and has an almost Sherlock Holmes-like ability to read people and clues. Sounds familiar, hey? What’s even odder, globalisation-wise, is that this is the first show to be made by ABC International Studios – not even ABC Australia, at that, but ABC US, which was of course the network that created Forever.

Globalisation paradox.

Harrowing

While Australia obviously has a final tradition of legal dramas (eg Crownies, Janet King, Newton’s Law) and police soap operas (eg Cop Shop), it’s noticeably not had much by way of police procedural dramas. Harrow is in part an attempt to fill this hole and join the rest of the world, probably by exporting it, probably to Netflix. After all, if S4C can do it, Australia should be able to do it, too.

Gruffudd plays the eponymous Harrow, a maverick forensics examiner in Brisbane. His flouting of the rules is not much loved by his boss (Robyn Malcolm) and his general work demeanour means his work colleagues don’t much love him either, although new scene of crime officer Mirrah Foulkes seems to be taking something of a shine to him. However, he’s great at his job, so he’s tolerated, even if he keeps threatening to resign every five minutes.

Meanwhile, he’s going through a divorce, something that’s caused his teenage daughter (Ella Newton) to virtually break off contact from both him and her mother (Anna Lise Phillips). But Gruffudd has a plan to win his daughter back. If only he didn’t have a deep dark secret that’s about to get found out…

Disconcerting

The first episode of Harrow is a bit confusing. While I admire shows that don’t immediately answer all the questions they present the audience, there were times that I wondered if I’d accidentally started watching episode two, since the show leaps around so much. We have a body being dumped in the harbour, then Gruffudd is rushing to the hospital because his daughter has overdosed on recreational drugs, then he’s resigning so he can sail off to Bora Bora with her, then he’s handing out his work possessions to his colleagues, then he’s being asked to re-evaluate an old crime.

I was confused, I must admit.

After that, the show begins to settle down and show you its format, as Gruffudd uses his holiday leave to investigate an accident that a distraught parent thinks was really a murder. On the one hand, it’s a regular procedural, with Gruffudd ignoring everyone else’s highly valid point that there are police and lawyers whose job it is to find out who committed a crime, so that he can go off and investigate those crimes himself, all while ignoring pretty much every rule and procedure you care to think of. Fortunately, by the second episode, Foulkes has effectively taken on the Alana De La Garza role and become the tolerant cop who takes Gruffudd along with her since he’s proved his usefulness. And because she fancies him, which given he’s the kind of bloke who takes his top off at security checks or because he’s working on his boat, isn’t totally implausible.

Meanwhile, back at HQ, he’s quirkily watching old movies or quirkily listening to vinyl recordings of old jazz. If anyone comes along to ask why he’s not doing his proper work, he tells them he’s already done it and even worked out whodunnit – which he has. So there you have it – he’s House on a boat. He’s… Houseboat?

All the usual ingredients for a quirky crime drama, sure, but Gruffudd is a genial investigator and his genuine empathy and care for the victims he’s dealing with are believable. Indeed, even though there’s an air of unseriousness to proceedings, starting with the quirky animated title sequence of bodies being dumped in the harbour, the show itself is actually done a bit more authentically than the average procedural, even CSI. There’s a visceral quality to the autopsies and examinations, as well as a general awareness of different forensics departments doing different things, which is quite refreshing. There’s also a lot more swearing than you’d get in the average network US show. The mild bullying of gay assistant Remy Hii is a little distasteful, but the show just about gets away with it.

Ioan Gruffudd and Mirrah Foulkes in Harrow
Ioan Gruffudd and Mirrah Foulkes in Harrow

All at sea

The serial element that binds the episodes together is the suggestion that Harrow is a murderer – or at least covering up a murder. That body being dumped in the harbour at the beginning and in the titles? That was our man Harrow. Who knows – maybe we’ve even got a Chancer in action? Somehow I doubt he’s a Dexter.

The body discovered in episode one and Harrow placed in charge of the forensics, the question is then whether he’ll be found out, whether he’ll cover up evidence or what, all to preserve whatever secret he has. Unfortunately, there’s not much of this in the second episode, which again is another investigation of a standalone crime. And while the first episode’s cover-up of a murder made some sort of sense, episode two’s (spoiler alert) wolf-cult-related endeavours smacked of huge silliness and sat poorly next to the show’s otherwise reasonable forensics.

That means, I suspect, the usual drip-drip of story over the first season’s 10 episodes and perhaps even beyond, given the show was renewed for a second season before the first had even finished*.

Ioan Gruffudd and Robyn Malcolm in Harrow
Ioan Gruffudd and Robyn Malcolm in Harrow

Conclusion

Harrow is a genial enough, occasionally funny show that is a cut above the average US procedural and a welcome change of direction for Australian drama. Nevertheless, globally, it’s nothing extraordinary or unique, while the serial element is probably not going to reveal any huge shocks and may ultimately be a little disappointing.

So, it’s probably best thought of as a star vehicle for Gruffudd, one that is carried almost entirely by his strengths (which are many), as well as the Australian backdrop. That might well be enough for you to want to watch it. Me? Obviously, TMINE has its Welsh agenda, but I’ll reserve judgement, at least for a while.

* UPDATE: Oops. Second season hasn’t quite been confirmed yet, but they’re working on it.