I was both intrigued by and fearful of BBC America's latest Brit drama import, Jekyll.
After all, it was created by writer/producer Steven Moffat (of Coupling and Doctor Who fame), which lent credence to its high standards of quality, but it also concerned me. Would this be the umpteenth retelling/re-imagining of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel of psychological horror?
In the end, I needn't have worried at all. Moffat's Jekyll is a heart racing, tense, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride that never lets up its breakneck pace or taut stylishness. It also deals head on with the that aforementioned Robert Louis Stevenson gem in an interesting and compelling way -- by acknowledging it.
While that might seem the height of foolishness, just the opposite is the result. This Jekyll definitely owes a debt to the original author and what better way to construct an homage than to actually use the source text? In the world of Jekyll, Robert Louis Stevenson did write the novel, but it was based on the life of an associate of his named, yes, Dr. Jekyll.
Cut to our present day hero/villain, Dr. Tom Jackman (Murphy's Law's James Nesbitt), a mild mannered physician with what you might call multiple personality disorder, who appears to be a descendant of the original Dr. Jekyll. But here's the catch: Dr. Jekyll didn't have any children (the Jekyll line died out with him) and, as for that multiple personality theory, Jackman's problem isn't just psychological in nature. There's a physical change that accompanies his transformation into "Hyde." His height, hair color, hairline, and jaw distinctly change, as does his posture, voice, and, well, sunny outlook on life.
Unlike their predecessors, this Jekyll/Hyde pairing has an arrangement of sorts. They acknowledge that each other shares a single body and go out of their way to make things slightly easier for one another. Or Jackman did anyway, devising a system that incorporates mobile phones, Dictaphones, and GPS tracking so that Hyde is never off of the grid. (Until he wants to be, anyway.) And Jackman has taken the rather unusual step of hiring a psychiatrist nurse, Katherine Reimer (Bionic Woman's Michelle Ryan) to work for them. She's tasked with babysitting the two men, pouring them a drink upon their arrival at the high tech (and soundproofed) flat that serves as their HQ, complete with an electronically secured chair and an array of cameras that keep Hyde's baser instincts in check.
This being a thriller, Katherine has her own motives for accepting this job. There are also other factors in play: among them Jackman's family, led by his estranged wife Claire (Coupling's Gina Bellman), who has no idea about his condition. He's also being tracked -- separately, no less -- by delightfully fey lesbian private detectives Miranda (Meera Syal) and Min (Fenella Woolgar), and by a mysterious black van.
That black van signals the end of the relatively peaceful life Jackman has carved out for himself, one in which he can safely return home to his wife and children and in which Hyde can seek out hookers and drinks to sate his desires. Hyde is becoming stronger and a mysterious American outfit, the one controlling the ubiquitous armored van, is trying to draw out the dark half of Jackman for purposes unknown. Their experiment turns deadly when they place one of Jackman's children in harm's way during a trip to the zoo and bring out the savage Hyde, an id-compelled child with inhuman strength and reflexes who has no compunction about murdering, terrorizing, or torturing anyone who gets in his way.
The strength of Jekyll rests squarely on the shoulders of its talented cast. Nesbitt is electrifying to watch as he plays two completely different characters; his Jackman is icy, methodical, and distant while Hyde is psychotic, dangerous, and charismatic. Never before has a double performance been so scintillating to witness or so compellingly complex as this. Michelle Ryan exudes a sinister sexuality as Katherine and manages to be completely disarming as she conceals her own secrets. The scene in which she is terrorized by Hyde after breaking their agreement (that the lights and cameras stay on or she's dinner) is terrifying. (Plus, she looks absolutely smoking in this production: someone ought to give a shout to the crew over on Bionic Woman to take notes.)
The supporting cast is equally wonderful. Bleak House's Denis Lawson is the perfect combination of blue blooded friendly and shifty at the same time as the audience is left to guess his character's motivations, while Gina Bellman -- portraying Jackman's in the dark wife Claire -- is all worried detachment and thwarted passion. I love the inclusion of hard-boiled (or in the case of Min, soft-boiled) private detectives Miranda and Min. They provide a little levity and fun in a darker than dark drama about the blackness of one man's soul and they give Jackman somewhere to turn in his hour of need. Plus, their scenes are just hysterical to watch.
In fact, my only complaint about Jekyll is that at times I couldn't quite suspend my disbelief. These moments, however, are few and far between during the drama's two-hour premiere, but they took me out of the action nonetheless. The biggest one was during the aforementioned zoo scene. Jackman's son is placed inside a lion cage and the good doctor must transform into Hyde in order to rescue him, which he does with rather dramatic results, by climbing inside the cage and ripping apart the lion with his bare hands and teeth and then tossing it over the zoo to land on top of that black van. The best part: not a single zoo official or zoo visitor notices any of it. Given the grittiness of the production, I was hoping for a bit more realism in this scene rather than the cartoonishness that marked it.
That single complaint aside, I can't get enough of Jekyll, a smart, sleek production that peels away the mystery of literature's greatest double act and reignites the war between two halves of a man's personality. It's an interesting conceit and, in the hands of a creator of lesser talents than Moffat, could have been a messy endeavor. Instead, it's a blood and gore filled romp through the dark places that most of us, angels included, fear to tread.
Jekyll airs Saturday evenings at 9 pm on BBC America.
* * *
Jace is an LA-based television development and acquisitions exec who watches way too much television for his own good and would love a TiVo for every room in the house. (He’s halfway there.) His blog, Televisionary, can be found at televisionaryblog.com.