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In 'Vigil,' a claustrophobic detective chases a murderer — on a submarine

Det. Chief Inspector Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) chases down a murderer on <em>Vigil</em>.
BBC/World Productions/Peacock
Det. Chief Inspector Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) chases down a murderer on Vigil.

If we leave aside The Beatles' yellow one, submarines have a pretty dim reputation in popular culture. They get attacked by a giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, become a wartime hellhole in Das Boot, and, to judge from Crimson Tide and The Hunt for Red October, they're nearly always on the verge of triggering World War III.

Their image doesn't get any brighter in Vigil, a new police procedural about a murder aboard a nuclear submarine. The show broke BBC ratings records when it aired this summer in the UK and is now premiering in the U.S. on the Peacock streaming service. Filled with well-known TV actors, this six-part series is a weird hybrid. It marries the bingeably implausible plotting of shows like The Bodyguard and Line of Duty to a story of psychological healing.

When a sailor is killed aboard H.M.S. Vigil, a Scottish-based nuclear submarine out on patrol, the police hand the case to its top investigator, Det. Chief Inspector Amy Silva. She's played by Suranne Jones, a huge British star who you may know from Doctor Foster and Gentleman Jack.

DCI Silva may not be the ideal person for the job given that, due to an earlier trauma, she's claustrophobic and hates being under water. No matter. They chopper her out to the Vigil, while the landlubber end of the case is carried out by her lover, Det. Sergeant Kirsten Longacre – that's Rose Leslie, who played Jon Snow's sweetheart on Game of Thrones.

Without giving too much away, I can tell you that there are more murders and, as befits a maritime mystery, a slew of red herrings. Silva's and Longacre's investigation keeps widening to involve MI5, the British admiralty, anti-nuke protestors, skullduggerous Russians, slippery Yank bureaucrats and Scottish VIPs with advanced degrees in shiftiness.

As an aggressive alpha cop, Silva expects cooperation from the Vigil's crew, but to them, she's just in the way. So who can she turn to? The friendly-ish coxswain played by Shaun Evans, best known as the young Inspector Morse on Endeavour? The disdainful second-in-command – that's Adam James – who oozes entitlement? Can she even trust the captain (Paterson Joseph), who often appears inept?

Like too many series these days, Vigil is drawn out. The action is padded with allusions to geopolitical risk and the danger of nukes; yet these are half-hearted. They receive nowhere near the attention that Vigil gives the flashbacks that explain how Silva, a driven bloodhound of a detective, is tormented by the obligatory personal demons. Jones is a charismatic actor, and if her performance as Silva was a wine, the sommelier would describe it as brisk and flinty, with underlying notes of frenzy.

In truth, Silva's inner crises aren't very interesting. But that's no surprise. If decades of thrillers have taught me anything, it's that almost none are better when they seek to "deepen" genre formulas by dwelling on their protagonists' personal lives. Call me heartless, but I just don't care about James Bond's childhood or romantic agony — get back to spying, 007! Each time Kurt Wallander has yet another troubled encounter with his daughter, I start flipping the pages until he's back doing police work.

Although Vigil's creator, Tom Edge, may have hoped the series would offer a gripping character study, I can't imagine anyone watching it to see whether DCI Silva will have an emotional breakthrough. We're here to watch her solve the mystery – who did it, and why? – ideally in a way that keeps us guessing. And by this standard, Vigil succeeds. Which is why, even though British critics carped at some of its hokiness, the British public ate it up. I mean, a claustrophobic detective chasing a murderer on a submarine. Who wouldn't want to see that?

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.