I’ve always been a fan of British detective shows—the superior, more intellectual counterpart to the myriad of American crime shows. British detective drama is the only genre that satisfies my family’s disparate tastes in entertainment because it includes deep emotional currents, fantastic dramatic actors, suspenseful mysteries, and evocative storytelling. Instead of skipping from serial killer to serial killer every week, it ruminates in the grief of the tragedies it portrays.
My favorite of these shows is the detective series Endeavour, which is available for American viewers on PBS Masterpiece. Conceived as a prequel to the popular, acclaimed series Inspector Morse, which ran from 1987–2000, Endeavour follows detective Endeavour Morse in his early years as an officer in Oxford during the late 1960s. Morse is a classic detective character: wounded and brooding, yet boyishly charming and hyperintelligent. Incredibly British and Oxford–educated, he doesn’t care much for stupidity, but he’s a sensitive soul.
The show boasts stunning cinematography and compelling narratives while also incorporating period–relevant historical issues in its stories. I found this surprising, because Endeavour could have used any number of excuses to just make a show about a detective and the mysteries he solves. However, it makes the more difficult choice of portraying the realities of the time period, including women’s rights, racial conflict, queer representation, and homophobia.
The first episode of season one portrays a young single mother suffering from mental illness. She isn’t demonized, nor is her mental health used to set her up as the killer; instead, she's portrayed with empathy and as evidence of the terrible conditions in mental institutions of the time.
In episode four, a minor female character is revealed to be in a same–sex romantic relationship with her murdered roommate, a sex worker. The detective inspector gently remarks “You were…particular friends, would it be? You wouldn’t be the first to have their head turned by a working girl.” Perhaps it’s not the language we would use now, but it displays a sense of non–judgmental understanding. It is such a minor detail, and yet one that could have been easily left out or re–written as a close friendship.
In the third episode of season two, Morse is investigating a department store. One of the minor characters, a worker in the store, is an effeminate gay man. He has meaningful relationships with the women he works with—they defend him from mockery at a pub, and he defends them from unwanted romantic advances. He's portrayed first and foremost as a friend and confidante, but his life and struggles as a gay man in the 1960s are not overlooked.
Another episode in the third season has a minor character who is referred to as a “confirmed bachelor” to establish he was not having an affair with a murdered female character. The phrasing shows the language of its time period, and is accepted without criticism as evidenced by the investigating officers. Again, it may not seem like much, but I’ve always been struck by the inclusion of such a detail to flesh out a supporting character, and how it's deliberately used as an important detail of the mystery.
In a fourth season episode, Morse investigates a murder related to a boy band, and the band in question is clearly modeled off The Beatles. Morse figures out that one of the members of the band is bisexual and was involved with the male victim. He also analyzes the band’s songs, proving they have references to same–sex romantic love and a desire for both “boys and girls.” It’s a major part of the mystery, and another way the show layers historicity with queerness. In the same episode, the B–plot features a moral crusader who advocates for traditional Christian values, decrying television as homosexuality as corrupting influences on the youth. She's an unsympathetic character, and the show regards her as someone who will be left behind by history—and it’s right.
In its fifth season, Endeavour deals with racial tensions in Britain, referencing the racist backlash to mass immigration from Commonwealth countries like Pakistan, Nigeria, and Ghana in the late 1950s and 1960s. Season seven deals with these issues even more explicitly; the second episode features racist political rhetoric from a politician that is all too familiar now as it was in the 1960s. In his speech, he speaks on how immigrants are invading Britain and how different cultures simply can’t mix without violence. He explicitly remarks, “It’s not the color of your passport that matters, it’s the color of your skin.” “Color of your passport” is an especially affecting line considering that the re–introduction of blue, “English” passports was a huge symbol for the pro–Brexit “Leave” campaign.
In its seventh season, the show also explores sexism within academia by showing how women are sexually harassed and demeaned in the workforce. A female character who is a junior researcher in a science lab has to constantly stand up to harassment and objectification from her male co–workers. Additionally, the series continues including casual queer representation in its secondary characters. Another witness, a professional wrestler, openly admits he solicited another man for a one–night–stand, stating that within the show business of wrestling, no one cares about your personal preferences. It’s a refreshing take for the time period, one that surprises both the characters and the audience. It’s also a moment that reveals that pride, along with queer identity, has always existed in history.
The protagonists of Endeavour are overwhelmingly straight white men; it’s not a show about diversity, nor does it claim to be so. The series could have easily gotten away with just making a story about said straight white men in the 1960s, but it actively chose not to—instead, it chose to make queerness, as well as issues of gender and race, active and evident parts of its stories and its mysteries. When discussing the responsibility television has to be historically accurate, I find Endeavour’s decision to be a brave one, and its casual representation enhances the world it portrays.
The show has been renewed for its eighth season, which will air in 2021. I, personally, hope the show lasts the thirteen years its predecessor did, if not even longer.