Cinemax Brings J.K. Rowling Detective Series to Life With ‘C.B. Strike’

C.B. Strike” is the latest J.K. Rowling adaptation to arrive on your television or other viewing device. The series is based on detective novels Rowling wrote under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. There are no wizards or supernatural delicacies in this series however. It is a straight, cryptic, rather mixed affair with some decent cinematography. Produced in collaboration with the BBC, the show looks good and has some high caliber actors, but too much of a low caliber plot.

Tom Burke is Cormoran Strike, a war veteran turned detective operating out of a tiny office in Denmark Street in London. He’s a scruffy, grumpy sort, especially with his war injuries from Afghanistan which include a missing foot. Into the picture arrives a new secretary, Robin (Holliday Grainger), who finds it hard at first to settle into the office, especially since Cormoran doesn’t want her there. Soon enough there’s a big case to go after. A pop star model named Lula (Elarica Johnson) has dived out her fancy balcony and died. The coroner has ruled it a suicide, but her brother, John Bristow (Leo Bill) visits Strike to air his suspicions. Bristow offers a thousand pounds for Strike to investigate the case, which the detective happily accepts. The more Strike finds out about Lula, the stranger the case becomes, especially since she had a history of mental illness. Yet the evidence at close inspection hints that this was no mere suicide. Meanwhile Robin starts looking into Strike himself, uncovering his own colorful, exotic past.

The BBC just can’t seem to do any wrong when it comes to the visual technique of its programming. “C.B. Strike” has a stylish, glossy look mixed with the grit and scraggy flourishes of noir. Like most good noirs, Strike is dressed and design to look like a clear contrast to his wealthy clientele. The opening scene of the pilot, where Lula dives to her death, has atmosphere and eeriness. It’s a great start to the mystery. J.K. Rowling herself is a producer on the series and her versatility as a storyteller is on display considering the narrative is so apart from the whole “Harry Potter” franchise that has cemented her eternal fame. The world of “C.B. Strike” is one of tortured souls, crooked elites and broken affairs. There is a striking, antiwar undertone to the character of Strike and his PTSD symptoms resulting from his time in Afghanistan. There are reminders here if the PTSD-plagued war veteran detective in Netflix’s “Babylon Berlin.” The characters also have interesting backgrounds that fuel interest. Strike is the son of a rock and a mother who died mysteriously. Robin is the more down to earth presence, there to be an actual secretary and suddenly finding herself pulled into a world of detective work.

The set up and characters are all here, but what “C.B. Strike” is missing is a more engaging delivery. The first three episodes focus on the whole Lula case but the details become so cryptic and convoluted that by the end of the just the pilot, we barely have any idea of who is who, or who is doing what. Because nothing is developed in a more logical, coherent style, it’s easy to get lost and the style begins to quickly overtake the substance. There are some efficient supporting performances by Killian Scott as a skeptical police chief and Martin Shaw as Lula’s creepy uncle. Yet they are good actors operating within a plot that just drags. This is the kind of “slow TV” series that enjoys long takes soaking in the ambiance, but once the plot gets going we don’t have a good reason to care much for Lula. One can assume that you just have to keep watching, but if there’s one thing Rowling knows it’s that a good first chapter gets you hooked.

It is an odd thing to watch “C.B. Strike,” because it does have many noteworthy details. Strike himself is developed with plausibility. He was a former military investigator, which means he returned from the war with the necessary skills to become a sleuth. Robin lives with a partner, and only takes the secretary job despite Strike’s grumpiness because she’s already been paid. They have a good chemistry together as compatible opposites.

But alas, “C.B. Strike” just needs to conjure a better mystery or at least a bit more energy in its technique. A dead model is striking, but the why and who must be equally interesting. Of course it all depends on who is viewing. You might find the show to your pace and liking. It has style and good actors. These days on television much depends on the eye of the beholder, this is ever so true with the plot of this series.

C.B. Strike” season one premieres June 1 and airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.