One of the most delightfully absurd releases I have seen in a long time, Loch Ness markets itself somewhat half-heartedly as a “quality” crime series but really takes most of its cues from the Sunday night soap operas that became so popular in British television of the 1990s. At the heart of it is a murder mystery – the discovery of a sequence of corpses in and around Loch Ness – but in reality the murder feels like the mere prelude to a soap, an inconvenience that the showrunners need to get out of the way before they can settle into the real series. Among other things, that means that there is such a plethora of characters in Loch Ness – far too many for a mere six episodes – that it doesn’t really make sense to do a detailed plot summary, especially because many of the trajectories seem to be completely irrelevant to the murder, particularly those that draw most deliberately on soap opera tropes and motifs. As the investigation proceeds, we’re treated to a comatose patient whose mother seems to be deliberately keeping him in an unconscious state, a criminal who turns up in town to remind a local resident of his dark past, an obstetrician who gets one of his patients pregnant, and a local woman who discovers her lover is a murderer – all tried and tested melodramatic scenarios, partly because they’re all capable of generating the maximum amount of affect without requiring much in the way of elaborate mise-en-scene.
Of course, Loch Ness is, on the surface of it, a murder mystery, and makes several half-hearted stabs in the direction of what constitutes “quality” murder mysteries at this moment in time. In fact, this relative disinterest in living up to the quality model perhaps exposes its artifices and contrivances more than a sincere and earnest exercise ever could, as the series filters through one “breathtaking” establishing shot after another, while drawing the kind of connection between spatial and narrative topography that has become such a staple of recent crime drama. While the series may elaborate a murder investigation, then, it seems prescient that it also needs to elaborate the landscape of the lake in the same gesture, taking us through a variety of coves, beaches, watersheds and vantage points, before the penultimate episode converges the activity on the hydroelectricity power plant that both regulates the level of the water as it moves from mountain to shore, but also draws sustenance from it at the same time. That kind of bald metaphorical connection between story and space abounds throughout Loch Ness, and could almost play as parody if inflected just a little differently, although the lack of irony is also part of the series’ charm.
As might be expected, the Loch Ness Monster plays a similarly bald metaphorical role, with a local professor explaining to his students, in the opening scenes, that the monster is actually inside them, and using it as the basis for a Jungian reading – or reduction – of character that forms the foundation for the rest of the series. Virtually every episode begins and ends with the spectacle of a dead body chained to the bottom of the lake – the last corpse to be discovered – while the seriality of the crimes is confirmed when a human heart turns up in the midst of a parodic “skeleton” of the Loch Ness Monster that a gang of local students constructs on the lakefront using remains from a local abbatoir. Similarly, DS Annie Redford, played by Laura Fraser, finds herself torn between her husband and a local felon when it comes to the investigation, both of whom run tour guides of the lake, but with very different purposes – in one case, to disprove the existence of the Monster and, in the other case, to prove it. Indeed, so emphatically does the Monster percolate through all these scenes that it becomes considerably more than a motif, or even a metaphor, and instead graduates into something like an indication of televisual “quality” itself – a guarantee of depth, both literally and emotionally – even as it draws upon the most lowbrow and commodified characteristics of the region, and those the locals are most anxious to avoid.
In the process, Loch Ness works to evoke something inherently melodramatic, or lowbrow, at the heart of the quality television impulse itself – a tendency that only the slightest shift in focus is needed to “bring to the surface,” to use one of many lake-centric metaphors that pervades the series. That juxtaposition is all the more evident for the fact of Siobhan Finneran playing the part of DCI Lauren Quigley, the police officer sent in from London to supervise the case once it becomes clear that there is a serial killer on the loose. In many ways, Quigley feels like an envoy from another model of television, not merely because Finneran’s superb character acting is somewhat at odds with the blunt, by-the-numbers characterization afforded to the rest of the cast, but also because her work on series like Happy Valley and Downtown Abbey testify to her association with the broad spectrum of what’s typically regarded as quality television in the United Kingdom, from the soapiest that’s permitted to the grittiest that’s permitted. The fact that her sidekick, Blake Albrighton, a profiler played by Don Gilet (of EastEnders fame), is the campiest and silliest character in the series, work to make her presence in the town all the more emphatic, but also to question the distinction between soapy Scotland and serious London that the series ostensibly establishes from the moment that her English accent first arrives upon the scene.
Yet it’s in the moments of quality television that the series gets too right that its disruption of the form is perhaps most memorable, since Loch Ness also abounds with signifiers of emotional and criminological depth that are so indicative of this particular mode of television that they almost feel written by committee, or composed as a textbook example. Often, these involve some juxtaposition of abject violence and local “texture,” most memorably a crucial fragment of brain matter discovered in a cairn on the side of the highway, and only discovered in the first place because Annie Redford notices that it has grown in size since the last time she passed by that way. That ability to use “local” knowledge to broker tableaux of extreme and visceral gore is conveyed so clinically, and outlined so functionally, that it inadvertently draws out the inherent hysteria and melodramatics of the supposedly subdued and sombre brand of crime television to which the series half-heartedly aspires. In fact, the very functionality of it is part of the half-heartedness, and it is that functional approach to quality television convention – as something that simply has to be taken into consideration as a matter of course – that ends up making Loch Ness feels so oddly and exuberantly liberated from its televisual moment, which it treats as just another procedure that its characters have to perform and manage.