Sunday, January 01, 2017

Ranking the first 13 episodes of Endeavour

To mark the publication of my new ebook Endeavour: The Complete Inspector Morse, I've written a listicle that ranks the show's first 13 episode. Totally subjective, it ranks episodes according to the levels of panache, wit, surprise and empathy they generate for me as a viewer. Ask me again tomorrow, the rankings would likely be very different. Feel free to debate my choices in the comments section, or propose your own rankings! Now, eyes down for a full house...

13th - RIDE: Even lesser episodes of Endeavour are more than a match for the better episodes of many police procedurals, but Ride’s tangle of plot threads and a lack of characters with whom to empathise make this a hard effort to love. The opener of Series Three gets plenty of marks for panache but the script lacks the show’s usual wit and the surprises feel forced, rather than the twists that feel inevitable in retrospect.

12th - NOCTURNE: A creepy, almost empty countryside boarding school, missing girls, a hundred-year-old massacre to solve, all set against the backdrop of the 1966 World Cup - yet somehow this episode is less than the sum of its parts. Since the show is based in a logical world, the ghost story is too obvious a red herring while the explanation for the killer’s action takes nearly six minutes to unravel. All in all, a curate’s egg.

11th - GIRL: Series openers are not a strongpoint for Endeavour, though there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Girl. By comparison to the stories that follow, this episode’s only issue is being a bit low-key. Girl could just as easily have been set a decade earlier or later, making little use of the 1960s period. But the arrival of new regulars like Constable Jim ‘Matey’ Strange is a big plus, pushing it close to the top ten.

10th - ARCADIA: This episode fully embraces its Summer of Love setting, and throws plenty of references to that late 1960s classic, The Graduate - plus an extended homage to Dirty Harry. The script is witty and looks luscious, but lacks the element of surprise that would elevate it further up this list. A few too many red herrings and a small-scale story keep Arcadia below the level it would otherwise deserve here.

9th - ROCKET: Plenty of wit and style on show here, with Craig Parkinson proving his star turn in Line of Duty was no fluke. This factory-based mystery based around a royal visit also digs into the past of young Morse as he gets intimate with an old acquaintance from his student days in Oxford. Some excellent work all round here, just edged out by the extra sizzle found in the episodes ranked higher.

8th - TROVE: A series opener that grips from start to finish, full of twists and turns, alarms and surprises. Fans of the original Inspector Morse series will enjoy the early appearance by a repugnant academic whose true evil will only become apparent in future. Lashings of noir styling, a painful trip to the big smoke for Endeavour and the arrival of Nurse Monica Hicks combine to make this the best series opener to date.

7th - PILOT: This is a corker from start to finish, with few things to complain about - so why isn’t it rated higher? The reason is not for what is here, but what isn’t. Regulars like Bright, Strange and Jakes would only appear when Endeavour got a full series, and they add another extra dimension to the show that’s a little absent here. The spy subplot is also superfluous to requirements, which explains why it was cut for US viewers.

6th - FUGUE: The obligatory serial killer toying with the police episode. Clever, canny and creepy in equal measure, this is a compelling tale with Morse and others in jeopardy as a high functioning sociopath [no, Sherlock, not you] performs a series of opera-inspired killings. The only frustration is it takes Endeavour and co so long to figure out what is obvious to any regular viewer of serial killer thrillers.

5th - SWAY: The margins between each episode at the top end of this list are finer than gossamer thread. So what lifts Sway above the likes of Fugue? It’s the supporting cast of characters at Burridges department store. They all seem like real people, with individual flaws and foibles, rather than temporary fodder for a crazed killer. Thursday’s heartbreak only adds to the impact of this high quality drama - a real gem.

4th - CODA: If the opening episodes of Endeavour can be a problem, series finales are almost always crackers. This was the endgame of Series Three, with a bank heist in the middle and the departure of Joan plucking the heartstrings at the end. Thursday coughing up a bullet will strain credulity for some viewers, but this is still a very strong effort - even if it can’t match the gut punch drama found in the other series finales.

3rd - PREY: The ultimate love it or hate it episode of Endeavour, the one with the tiger stalking people in leafy Oxford. Even attempting this storyline seems like an act of madness, but pulling it off verges on miraculous. Surprise, wit, panache - this really ticks all the boxes, hence it’s bronze medal finish here. Hard to imagine any other police series delivering this story with a straight face and making it work - masterful.

2nd - HOME: This episode is heart-breaking. Thursday faces his past as London gangsters come to claim Oxford, while Morse must confront his estranged family. In the midst of all that is a huge conspiracy, amazing snow-bound visuals and a genuinely surprising murder with the unlikeliest of culprits pulling the trigger. A stunning finale for the first series, exceeded only the next series finale a year later...

1st - NEVERLAND: Dark, bleakly funny, and profoundly disturbing are all accurate descriptions for the Series Two finale. Alas, shocking stories about cases of historic sexual abuse and their cover-ups remain timely, so the narrative behind this episode continues to resonate. The shocking cliffhanger left viewers gasping, while the 21-month wait for Series Three even more agonising. A stone cold classic in every aspect.

Series Four of Endeavour starts at 8pm, Sunday January 8th, 2017 on ITV. Where will those four episodes end up on this list? Can the series opener overcome the curse of the first story? Will the finale match the likes of Coda, Home and Neverland? We shall see...

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