The Cuckoo’s Calling was a compelling detective drama – but one that faltered at the last hurdle

Alex Moreland
Contributor

Tonight saw the conclusion of The Cuckoo’s Calling, the BBC’s adaptation of Robert Galbraith’s novel of the same name. The series starred Tom Burke as Cormoran Strike, and Holliday Grainger as Robin Ellacott; it follows Strike’s attempt to ascertain whether model Lula Landry committed suicide, or was in fact murdered.
The series has been a popular one, and it’s not difficult to see why. In every respect, The Cuckoo’s Calling was a competently executed detective drama, moving intelligently between the different hallmarks of the genre. It was never, for example, the high concept thriller of Sherlock – there are no astounding deductions or leaps of intuition. Rather, this was a case of gradually unveiling each layer of mystery, plunging the viewer into a well-drawn world of colourful suspects. You could describe it as generic, perhaps, but in a way that’d be missing the point; it’s not so much that The Cuckoo’s Calling typifies the genre, but rather embodies and enlivens it.

The piece is helped, of course, by the impressive performances of its two leads; Burke and Grainger have an easy, confident chemistry together, and after even a short time, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else portraying the characters. Burke impresses as eponymous detective Cormoran Strike, anchoring the drama around his taciturn performance, quietly compelling throughout. It’s much the same case with Grainger – her character Robin is Strike’s opposite in many respects, but she’s able to dominate the programme just as easily. Indeed, as all the best actors do, Grainger is able to improve on the limitations of the material. At times it does feel like the female role has been underwritten somewhat, particularly in the first episode; a result, perhaps, of greater focus on Cormoran Strike himself and introducing the mystery, but a problem nonetheless. You’d not necessarily notice, though, as Grainger elevates the character beyond what was on the page; in many ways, hers is the standout performance of the series.

Perhaps the real problem, though, emerges at the close of the final episode, as the murderer is revealed. The Cuckoo’s Calling indulges in the same temptation many crime dramas do – the shock twist, when the murderer turns out to be someone the audience never expected. Much like others of its genre, though, it doesn’t quite work; a twist where the starting point seems to have been “what will be unexpected”, rather than “what will be unexpected, but make sense afterwards”. Worse still, though, it was fairly easy to guess. Across this final episode, the direction constantly stressed and returned to the murderer, giving them a greater degree of focus than they’d received thus far. Thus the final reveal was, unintentionally, quite heavily telegraphed – attempts to remind the audience the character existed ultimately meant the show played its hand too early.

In the end, then, it constrains the drama – of course it does. In any detective story, a lot of it hinges on the resolution. The Cuckoo’s Calling, however, fares a little better, in no small part because of the strength of its leads. Even as it stumbles at the final hurdle, it’s still entirely enjoyable, because of the characters if not the case.

One can only hope, though, that next week’s follow-up The Silkworm manages to improve upon its predecessor.

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