JEKYLL created by Steve Moffat, with James Nesbitt and Michelle Ryan. Premieres Wednesday (August 29) at 10 pm on Showcase. Rating: NNNN
American psychos have become rather boring. Take Dexter, for example. Cold, calculating, unnervingly sociopathic. And dull.
He's all kill, kill, kill. No conscience, no remorse, no personality. A killing machine in the strictest sense. Certainly not someone to swap stories with over a pint.
Dexter (see DVD, page 80) and all his psych-101-style serial killer pals could learn a thing or two from dear Dr. Tom Jackman and his malevolent alter ego, Hyde. Here's someone who knows how to indulge his darker impulses in sick and hilariously twisted ways. I mean, who wouldn't want to hear about the time he went schizoid and killed a zoo lion with his bare hands while singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight? Talk about showmanship. Bloody brilliant.
Jekyll is a bold BBC America reimagining of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic that strips away the 19th-century stuffiness in favour of a shrewdly contemporary spin.
More than that, it re-energizes what has become a tired premise - the influence of the Freudian inner conflict between good and evil can be seen in everything from Psycho to Heroes to the Incredible Hulk - with some intriguing Lost-like mysteries, conspiracies and shadowy secret agents.
But men in black aside, any Jekyll-and-Hyde story lives or dies by how well its leading man chews the scenery. John Barrymore, Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, Jack Palance, Kirk Douglas - all big-screen set-devourers - have duelled with the dual roll.
Now, James Nesbitt (Match Point, Bloody Sunday) gives a performance with real teeth, perhaps the most textured and layered of the pack. It's easily the most mesmerizing and deliciously devilish, as though Nesbitt were channelling the best parts of Jack Nicholson's Joker, not to mention his Shining psychopath and Wolf werewolf, and Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter, without ever being derivative.
Unlike previous incarnations, Nesbitt's Jackman is no mad scientist, just a seemingly timid family man with an estranged wife and two snot-nosed sons who also happens to be related in some way to the Henry Jekyll of Stevenson's novel. Indeed, the mystery of who or what Jackman/Hyde is provides the show's central intrigue.
All we know for sure is that Jackman is a man whose ego became so big it left him, or at least it possesses him, an entirely separate personality that leads an entirely separate life. Hyde's a drinker and a womanizer, and neither remembers what the other does (Jackman removes his wedding band before he transforms, so Hyde won't discover he has a family, while the two use a digital recorder to leave each other messages, like where the car is parked).
Hyde is also utterly evil, gleefully cruel in a very childlike way, as though tearing a man apart were no different than pulling the wings off a fly. That he also seems imbued with superhuman strength and speed, an ability to climb buildings like Spider-Man and a nifty set of what appear to be fangs - Jackman originally theorizes that he's a werewolf, after he's dismissed plain old multiple personality disorder, of course - lends a streak of the supernatural.
And the wonder of the transformation from man into monster is that Nesbitt accomplishes it without CGI or complicated makeup effects. Hyde is a little taller, his eyes darker, his jaw stronger, his voice deeper and his demeanour entirely more menacing. But it's all created by Nesbitt's performance, which becomes all the more complex as the divide between Jackman and Hyde starts to blur and the two sides of his personality begin to communicate with each other.
And what communication it is; the dialogue is delightfully dark and very funny. Some of it is cleverly self-referential ("I have a nice side, but you just missed him"), some is simply amusing ("Killing - it's like sex, only there's a winner"), and Nesbitt's dry delivery is spot-on. One character even observes that Hyde's British accent makes everything he says funnier. All of which makes me wonder what the BBC could do to update The Master Of Ballantrae or Treasure Island.
What To Watch This Week
TUESDAY, AUGUST 28
RESCUE ME (dramedy) Susan Sarandon is back for the fourth season of this volatile series about alcoholic firefighter Tommy (Denis Leary), who finds he's an arson suspect and that his son may actually be his brother's. 10 pm on Showcase
THURSDAY, AUGUST 30
THE L WORD (Sapphic soap) Bette and Tina's bitter custody battle and Shane's drug-and-alcohol-fuelled car crash after leaving Carmen at the altar set the stage for the fourth season. 10 pm on Showcase