Sometimes I ponder an alternate timeline where “Sherlock” never existed, and wonder if “Endeavour” and its star, Shaun Evans, may have claimed the secret chamber in our hearts that Benedict Cumberbatch’s detective conquered.
After all, the two investigators have a lot in common. Sherlock Holmes and Endeavor Morse are two of many crime solvers adapted from the literature presented under the Masterpiece Mystery! Tent recently interpreted as younger men in their prime.
Everyone has a long association with television, although Holmes’ mantle has been worn by a number of actors. Morse is associated with two: Evans and the late John Thaw, who established the character in “Inspector Morse,” which aired from 1987-1993 and was revived for five special episodes that ran between 1995-2000.
Together they have ensured that Endeavor Morse has been seen in some form by British and American television viewers for more than 30 years, and even longer by readers who have forged a loyalty to the character in Colin Dexter’s books. However, Evans achieves something we don’t often see in many modern detectives, both creating and solving the mystery of how Thaws’ perceptive, hard-drinking, arrogant, yet lovable detective came to be.
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“Endeavour” is at its best when it puts our focus on solving the mystery of its main character, a quest that Evans’ performance pulls us deeper into with each new season. His 1960s Morse is resilient but not a hard case; refined but deterred from popular distractions that excite the average man. One of the funnier twists of season eight sees the detective sergeant visibly suffering from a live tape of a game show he never would have wanted to endure without a commission.
Morse’s willful ignorance of popular pastimes drives his mentor DCI Fred Thursday (Roger Allam) to despair. Thursday is also one of the few people who respect Morse’s acumen and empathy. But in these 1971 chapters, he worries that his partner’s loneliness, sharpened by despair, poses a danger to himself and others.
Roger Allam as Thursday and Shaun Evans as Morse in Endeavor (Courtesy of Mammoth Screen and MASTERPIECE)
And here ends the theoretical emotional terrain shared by Holmes and Morse. In season seven, Morse fell in love with a mysterious woman he met in Venice, Violetta (Stephanie Leonidas), only to find out that she deceived him before sacrificing herself by stepping in front of a bullet meant for him.
Sherlock of Legend, as Cumberbatch plays him, probably wouldn’t have been so carefree, even if he had allowed himself to be as vulnerable as Morse, who has taken to drowning his grief in alcohol.
That’s perhaps easier to understand than why I’m referring to a “mystery” series that hasn’t aired in years, alongside a very different one that has been a reliable presence in our lives for the past decade.
The explanation lies in this word: reliable. “Sherlock” hasn’t had a new episode since 2017, but flies around like a ghost as it hasn’t been officially canceled and could theoretically leave people hanging on hoping for its return forever. It’s the ultimate example of emotional holding back.
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In contrast, Endeavor has returned regularly since 2013 with new mysteries, each carving new edges and curves into its detective’s soul. But that also means that the wider audience may not have appreciated the show as intensely as Evans and Allam’s performances warrant. It never got a Comic-Con panel or an Entertainment Weekly cover, for example, which says nothing about its value or quality, but says a lot about the average couch potato’s passion for classic British mysteries.
There are other reasons why “Endeavour” might not have caught fire as easily, namely sticking to series creator Russell Lewis’ relatively simple whodunit structure, which allows more focus to be placed on the puzzles woven through the dialogue and through the behavior of his characters are implied.
The cases themselves aren’t particularly complicated, and tend to lean toward the theatrics rather than plausibility. Continuing the focus on style and character development, these three new episodes take Morse and Thursday into the world of pro football, a nudist colony and an Agatha Christie-flavored mousetrap.
Everyone hums with a slight energy that masks the silent sickness that slowly grips the hero until the situation in the final episode, chillingly titled “Terminus,” makes it impossible to hide.
Season 8 of Endeavor is the penultimate of the series, with the ninth and final episode round already in production. By the end of the series, Evans will have played Morse in more TV episodes than Thaw. With the end in sight, the connection between Evans’ “Endeavour Morse” and Thaw’s “Endeavour Morse” feels closer than ever, anticipated by some stealthily placed lines of dialogue and the detective’s heightened grief.
It was a pleasure to watch Evans Morse mature from an incorruptible young man struggling through the 1960s to the disillusioned, heartbroken shadow we meet in 1971. There aren’t many instances of TV shows featuring younger versions of established trackers with enough staying power to last more than a season or two.
Endeavor will be nine years old when it’s finished and owes its longevity to the crumpled, poetic humanity Evans brings to a detective millions have come to know but are only beginning to fully appreciate.
“Endeavour” premieres Sunday, June 19 at 9 p.m. on PBS. Watch a trailer via YouTube.
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