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The BBC's Latest Import is Modern, Chilling, and Groundbreaking

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We could be forgiven for thinking that “The Fall” is a police procedural story in a hallowed BBC tradition. The show is created and written by Allan Cubitt, who did the second season of “Prime Suspect,” the famous Helen Mirren TV vehicle in which she plays a British detective. A top cop, a woman, is brought in from London to help out with what appears to be a serial killer in Belfast. Haven’t we been here before? Don’t we know this game and enjoy the sport of “Find the killer”?

Two things disturb that preconception. Within minutes of the story starting, we know who the killer is; we watch him at work, with fascination, if not quite fondness. Secondly, the cop has none of the gritty feminist bitterness of Mirren’s Jane Tennyson. Instead, Gillian Anderson makes Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson one of the most beautiful women you’ll find on television. This is not simply Ms. Anderson. It’s the way she has been presented—long blonde hair, silk blouses with buttons that come undone, and a superior officer’s authority that quickly picks a handsome junior cop, gives him her hotel room number, and expects him to service her between 2 and 4:30 in the morning. Of course, he does as he’s told. As Stella has sex, the killer is at work. Who’s falling?

So, if we know so much so soon, how does this self-spoiling mini-series (five episodes, 300 minutes total) manage to be so compelling? In Britain, last month, it had record-breaking viewing figures, and in this country, Netflix moved in and bought the show for streaming. (While a certain kind of BBC product—“Masterpiece Theatre,” for example—was natural fodder for PBS, the network might be increasingly shut out by new technology and arrangements.) Why is it so compelling?

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Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson might be colder than the killer she's tracking.

I think it’s because this show is breaking ground; Gillian Anderson said as much in a promotional interview. It’s what made her want to do it. There is a secret similarity between Stella and Paul Spector, the killer. It begins in habits: They are both athletic—he runs; she swims. They are loners and intellectuals; their belief in intelligence is what makes them unreachable and unknowable. They both cherish the ritual of preparation. When we first see Stella, getting ready to go to Belfast, she removes a covering of nocturnal face cleanser. It’s like the way Paul works behind a mask.

Neither of them ever asks the show for sympathy. (We are far from the time where killers, like Peter Lorre in M, break down begging for understanding.) The unspoken bond is that of so many mystery stories: The detective has to learn to think like the killer; the killer is playing a game in which the investigator is the natural partner. The two figures share a terrible knowledge of the world. All alone in her flat, Stella could be the next victim, or another killer. It’s not that anyone is a suspect, prime or otherwise; it’s a matter of what it is in human nature we should suspect.

The structure and direction of the show works on this principle. The actions of the two leading characters are cut together. Very often, in close-up, they seem to be looking at each other. Moreover, Paul’s targets are attractive, educated, professional women living alone—they are the court of which Gillian Anderson’s cop is queen. Except that she is the loveliest of them all. And while it may not be sufficiently realistic or plausible, Anderson’s look is as vital to the show as the provocative loveliness of Grace Kelly, Janet Leigh, or Tippi Hedren in a Hitchcock film. There are moments in the series where an attentive viewer will develop the feeling that Stella’s courage or recklessness is deliberately putting her own life at stake. Isn’t she the ultimate victim that Paul might imagine?

Allan Cubitt has written all five episodes and Jakob Verbruggen has directed them. Verbruggen has had a career in series television, where directing is generally less important than writing, or creating. But “The Fall” is most thoroughly directed. The essential naturalism of the photography, and the meager use of music, are offset by a camera style that can be highly inventive. So Paul’s house (shared with a wife and two children) has roaming top shots that track over the rooms as if they were sets or cubicles in a doll’s house. (It may remind you of similar shooting at the violent conclusion of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, where the flourish or rhetoric is reaching out for fable or theater.

One of the best things about “The Fall” is that Paul is not an outcast or a trembling psychopath: He is a Dad with two children who adore him; happily married and having pleasurable sex with his wife. He is a grief counselor by profession. As you think about it, that’s another way of describing a cop. But Stella has no family, no back story, no support—except for the cop she calls in for sex. Not that she has any notion of falling in love with this guy. No rescue or happiness could convince Stella. She has to go on hunting killers, just as Paul has to go on providing her with material.

I won’t say more about the narrative, except to suggest that the enormous, stealthy expectations of the first three episodes are not quite fulfilled. I think the BBC elected to allow some mercy at the end. Fair enough, we need that, especially after so absorbing a set-up. By the end, the killer has passed the cop, and for all the iconic glory of Gillian Anderson (lovingly photographed by Ruairi O’Brien), Jamie Dornan as Paul has become the center of the drama in a performance that unpeels as slowly as a stripper—and maybe as seductively. The show has remarkable support: Bronagh Waugh as Paul’s wife; Niamh McGrady as an assistant cop who desires the boss; John Lynch as a superior, and compromised policeman; Archie Panjabi as the pathologist, and a series of young actresses as the victims, above all Valene Kane. The killings are not neglected in the showing, though the direct violence is not stressed. Instead, the filming draws us into the ritualistic satisfaction that Paul feels. I can’t think of a film that gazes on its corpses with such chilled awe.

Finally, you’ll wonder why “The Fall”? What does the title mean? I don’t have a settled answer, though I think the question is what keeps us watching. Perhaps everyone falls, including us. For this is a work of great art that asks us a profound question in the treatment of murder—why are we watching; what do we want? My only uneasy answer is that I watched all five episodes in one sitting.