When I think of London during the 18th century, I always imagine people of high aristocracy in powdered wigs and elaborate apparel, behaving with nearly perfect etiquette and civility and socializing in impeccable meeting halls or lawns.
The London seen in City of Vice is anything but that idyllic image. As stated in other reviews, think Deadwood set in England (complete with sex, violence and swearing -this show is definitely not for young children). The London of 1753 is overcrowded and the streets teem with gangs, thieves and prostitutes. Though difficult to fathom nowadays, there was no police force, nor did Parliament particularly see a need for one. The nobility had the Army and their personal guards to protect them; why should they bother if the peasants killed each other off? However, when street crime begins to invade high society, a solution was given consideration.
Enter Henry Fielding (Ian McDiarmand), the celebrated author of Tom Jones, and his brother, John (Iain Glen). The brothers use their standings as magistrates to organize the Bow Street Runners, who are basically London's first police force (and, incredibly, consist of just six men).
City of Vice contains all five episodes of the first season. It follows the brothers' constant struggles to fight street crime in one of the world's largest cities, solve complex murder cases, and satisfy the powers that be in Parliament enough not to lose their funding, all at the same time.
The sets are also said to be as historically accurate as possible. The cobblestone streets are slick with dirty water, and scaffolding is everywhere, conveying a city that is perhaps expanding too rapidly. There is also a graying pall over everything, which not only fits the constantly gray skies of London but also the overall grim tone of series.
The series is well-cast. McDiarmid and Glen seem odd choices at first, since both seem better suited for playing villains (particularly McDiarmid, who is best known for playing the evil Emperor in the Star Wars films). However, their lack of warmth only makes the characters more interesting and enables the viewer to see them grow into the job, learning many hard lessons along the way. Initially, the brothers are clearly well-meaning but have a rigid, by-the-book sense of justice and are not entirely successful at hiding their condescension toward the lower classes. Each case presents them with horrors and dilemmas they never could have foreseen, and their sense of right and wrong is continually challenged. The last episode is particularly effective at showing Henry as a "fish out of water" who has rarely left his cocoon of aristocracy and is simply not ready yet to handle the true mean streets of London.
I can see this series appealing to both those who like historical dramas, as well as those who enjoy gritty, sordid crime mysteries, such as CSI or Dexter. It is also a fascinating account of a real historical figure's rather remarkable achievement. 1750's London was clearly not as pristine as imagined: for a good look at the "rot under the roses," see City of Vice.
Only a brief but entertaining "Making of" featurette.
One complaint: I wish subtitles had been included on the DVD. Some of the historically accurate slang terms and thick accents make the dialogue difficult to follow at times.
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