BBC's River hasn't a particularly innovative premise. The overarching themes (loneliness, isolation, the need and search for justice) have been explored in many TV series all over the world in different ways. You could argue, also, that River is a bridge too far in a world that is filled with crime dramas ... particularly here in the States with one too many CSI's and Law & Orders. Do we really need another crime drama?
River forges it's own path, however, and takes a side-angle to the traditional crime-TV themes and gives you an in depth character study of one man who's mental issues often get the best of him and manifest themselves as ghosts of his mind. Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard's (Good Will Hunting, Avengers) bravura performance as the singularly complicated DI John River is the center of gravity which the entire six episode mini-series transverses.
This is a slow journey, as we find out if the ghosts in River's head are there to torture him, or is he torturing himself? A fascinating dichotomy emerges as River tries to find out who had killed his partner Jackie "Stevie" Stevenson (played wonderfully by MI5's Nicola Walker) one fateful night. Who could have done this to her? River distractedly tumbles his way through lead after dead end lead all the while trying to fight off the demons in his own mind.
You don't see in-depth character studies such as this in TV that often. It reminds a bit of the Swedish and British versions of Wallander. He and River share a penchant for being their own worst enemies. Yet, while Wallander's wounds are definitely self-inflicted and almost maliciously directed inward, River has actually come to terms with his mental issues and is at peace with the fact that he has these ghosts he speaks to ... but it serves to distract and torture him. Two sides of the same coin ... where someone is at ease with his own mind but his it still torments him. One particular ghost manifests itself to constantly harass, threaten, intimidate and berate River periodically. Most notably in moments of self-doubt.
Not to be left out, DCI Chrissie Read and Police Psychologist Rosa Fallows (played respectfully by Leslie Manville and Georgina Rich) are along for the ride with River as he performs mental gymnastics as he tries to solve the case of his murdered partner. An overarching theme of "family" plays out in particular with Stevie and DCI Read's stories and it all comes together in a glorious, emotionally fraught final episode.
If one was to nit-pick at this otherwise brilliant mini-series it is that the pacing, particularly in the first two episodes, is a bit on the slow side. As you hit episode three things pick up ... but this particular series is all about the mind and you can't do a guns blazing Michael Bay production with that. It's definitely a slow build, and it could have stood with better pacing early on in the series. It really is something that makes you work to appreciate it early on, and it could have been much easier than that.
Anyone who loves a well-written exploration of the all too human side of a police drama, this is for you. More than that, though. This is a series that takes you on a journey inside the tortured mind of someone who is isolated, lonely, tortured and has fits of depression buttressed by psychotic episodes ... but is just fine with that. A complicated journey that will absolutely leave you satisfied when you reach the conclusion.