It can sometimes feel like streaming upstream when I click on one of the services I have, looking for something to watch. I almost put myself into a trance by clicking through one movie or television series after another, not finding anything that strikes my fancy.
When my wife sighs and gets up to pay the bills instead of being subjected to this light show, I know it’s time to stop and just put on the basketball or hockey game.
But every now and then we pluck a gem out of the stream. We did so recently with the BBC series “Maigret.” It stars Rowan Atkinson of “Mr. Bean” and “Blackadder” fame, two stalwarts that have always been popular in our house.
The fact that Rowan Atkinson has, like so many comedians, plunged into straight drama is no surprise — that seems to be the inner desire of all comedians — and the fall of just about as many, as they rarely seem to capture the same magic being serious as they do when they were just out for laughs.
“Maigret” is different, on so many levels. The series follows the exploits of Chief Police Inspector Jules Maigret, who lives and works in 1950s Paris. I have never read one of the Maigret books, written by Georges Simenon, but I found out there are about 75 of them.
These 90-minute mysteries are full of great set designs and costumes, and one can almost smell the mustiness of the faded wallpaper in some of the rooms. What I like most about the series is that Maigret is not a super sleuth. He is no savant like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.
Though I have indulged in those books and movies as well, there is always going to be a disconnect, as no one can really be brilliant and super intelligent all the time. As someone who is never super intelligent, it was always a little hard to bond with those characters.
And when you get to other detective/mystery types, the hard-drinking and hard-living Raymond Chandler tough guys or the more modern versions like in the Harry Bosch series of books by Michael Connelly, they are fun to consume but not all that satisfying in the end.
Maigret is not like any of those other forms of the genre. He is not a master genius eccentric who plays the piccolo while recounting the second law of thermodynamics. He is just a solid, hard-working policeman who thinks a lot.
The character of Maigret does more thinking than talking in the series, which is strangely captivating.
It’s almost as if you can hear the wheels turning in his head. But when the wheels turn, it isn’t because he has deduced that the suspect is a left-handed tennis player with bad teeth because of the evidence he found on a chewing gum wrapper. It’s because he has charged his team with running down possible leads until things start to come together, a lot like real police work.
Another quirk of this series that makes the character refreshingly different is his domestic life. From what I’ve seen so far, the middle-aged character of Maigret lives in marital bliss with his middle-aged wife in a very compact and simple Parisian apartment.
No struggles with alcohol or drugs, and since Atkinson is playing the part, the thought of a femme fatale throwing herself at Maigret would not only be out of character, but out of the question.
Ironically, in a genre where the hero is almost always the anti-hero with the prerequisite issues, Atkinson’s Maigret is happily married, loves his job, and in both episodes I have seen so far, cares deeply about the victims, those who are left behind in mayhem’s wake, and he is filled with an overwhelming sense of recuperative justice.
Not vengeance, just a need to set things as right as he possibly can given the limitations of his position as a chief police inspector and his talent and abilities. The crimes are not committed by super villains, but by everyday awful people, much like real police work.
In Atkinson’s two great comedic endeavors, the aforementioned “Mr. Bean” and “Blackadder,” he played either a fool (a kind hearted one, sometimes in “Mr. Bean”) or despicable cad. In both he was brilliantly funny.
To play a thoughtful, caring, and almost plodding French policeman in the middle part of the last century is a triumph. Unless there are as unseen segments of this series where Maigret goes off the rails and leaves his wife or goes on a vicious crime spree of his own, I think this show will remain on our must-watch list.
The mysteries are good, the main character countercultural in his morality, and it’s an indulgence without guilt.