The crime drama is one of the most prevalent genres - but also one of the hardest to turn into great television. For every The Wire, there are a dozen CSI copies that bring nothing new to the table. Even if a show tries to do something different, like AMC's The Killing (an adaptation of the excellent Forbrydelsen), it can be a relative failure. Worse, the ratings favour the lesser examples of the genre.
TV3 has already had a taste of "failed crime drama with a twist" this year: The Blue Rose couldn't grab a sizeable audience, but it was a moderate success creatively. So it would be hard to blame them for being cautious with their optimism about Harry, which made its debut last night.
But they can rest assured on one point: Harry is bloody good television. And it's unlike anything else to come out of this country.
(Warning: spoilers from last night's Harry premiere follow.)
Harry stars Oscar Kightley as troubled cop Harry Anglesea, a Major Crime Unit detective returning from a month's leave after the death of his wife; it's not made clear exactly what happened, but it appears that her death was ruled a suicide (even though the phone message Harry keeps listening to sounds pretty chipper). Harry is thrown in at the deep end, getting involved in a series of armed robberies that has just resulted in its first death.
We get to see things from the perspective of the criminals, too - a trio of P-abusing lowlifes doing the bidding of a bikie gang led by Erroll Shand. The lowlifes are one-dimensional, pushing each other around and saying things like "I'll effing smash you, bro". They don't say the word "effing", of course. It's the beginning of an interesting tale, one that should get better as it plays out over the next six weeks.
I mentioned The Wire, and that is clearly an influence here along with Luther and Cracker, which producer Steven O'Meagher has cited in interviews. But Harry isn't exactly a mash-up of those shows; it boasts an authentic visual style - thanks to its adviser, former cop Neil Grimstone - and is clearly going for gritty reality, but it is more character focused than The Wire.
Harry is a tortured guy. We keep returning to his home life, to his struggles with his daughter and that answerphone message and the upside down photo of (presumably) his wife in the desk drawer at work. But we don't know to what extent yet. Kightley does a good job with the part. I wouldn't say his performance is perfect by any stretch, but he has left me pleasantly surprised. And I feel his best is yet to come.
Sam Neill plays Harry's immediate superior, Jim Stockton. He doesn't have much to do yet, but it is a pleasure just having that guy on the air. Shand is always great, and I'm excited to see how his role figures into the show. Matthias Luafutu is intriguing, too. As one of the crims, he's a little one-note, sure. But there is some raw talent there.
The real star, though, is the setting. Harry (the show, not necessarily the character) is imbued with authenticity. Much of the action takes place around the Counties Manukau Police Station, recreated on a sound stage for filming purposes, and while no actual police appeared on camera, advisor Grimstone ran instructional classes for the actors who would - which pays off for the finished product.
South Auckland is a character in the show too. I can't remember the last time I saw two or three characters having a conversation in Samoan on one of our main free-to-air channels, let alone in a drama production. And while shows like Go Girls or The Almighty Johnsons are fun to watch, it's wonderful to see a more realistic side of New Zealand on camera.
Harry is a success for New Zealand television, a leap forward in quality and scope, and I'm excited to see this story, and these characters, unfold over the next month or so.
Did you watch Harry last night? What did you think? Did you enjoy it as much as I did?