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‘C.B. Strike’ Review: Detective Series Based on J.K. Rowling Novels Shows the Limits of Doing Things by the Book

The newest Cinemax show is a dependable set of mysteries, but there's room for these investigations to become so much more.

CB Strike The Silkworm

“C.B. Strike”

Steffan Hill/Cinemax

There are many points in “C.B. Strike” where it’s clear that the show is based on a novel, because its title character often comes across as a detective from a novel. Played in the new Cinemax series by Tom Burke, Cormoran Strike seems to be solving mysteries at the expense of solving himself. His troubled family history hangs over him like the dry ice fog that probably covered the concerts of his long-departed musician father. Dealing with the aftermath of losing a leg during a tour of duty in the British Army, he’s also working through a tumultuous tabloid romance alongside his ongoing private investigator practice.

Cormoran Strike is the creation of author J.K. Rowling, who wrote the character as the protagonist of three novels, published under the pen name Robert Galbraith. These novels (“The Cuckoo’s Calling,” “The Silkworm,” and “Career of Evil”) form the basis for seven hour-long episodes of “C.B. Strike,” which each carry the dual promise and restrictions that come with its central character.

As strong as his powers of deduction are, relative to everyone else, one major advantage that sets “C.B. Strike” apart from other shows of its ilk is the way that it rewards more conventional groundwork. Cormoran isn’t an expert driver or a world-class surveillance/security expert. Despite his history of military service (which the show includes as part of its when-convenience-dictates approach to flashbacks), there’s never the sense that fighting in a war zone turned him into some ultra-savvy spy. The breaks in these three main cases often come from a combination of suspects’ laziness, lapses in judgment, and Cormoran’s dogged intuition. (In other instances, it’s just some handy plot contrivances.)

The key to the occasional success of “C.B. Strike” comes from the same force that jolts Cormoran from his self-destructive cycle: the arrival of a new receptionist, Robin Ellacott (Holliday Grainger). The show works best when Cormoran doesn’t have to be the kind of superdetective that holds together an entire story singlehandedly through increasing personal turmoil and a growing list of heretofore unexplained talents. As the series progresses and Robin takes a more invested role in these cases, the division of tasks and contributions leads to a more balanced show.

In resisting some of the sensational elements of a detective story, that choice does rob the show of a certain amount of intrigue. “C.B. Strike” is a show that seems to be in a constant gray area between an over-simplified plot and a shaggy batch of red herrings. Much in the same way the Rowling’s novels utilize every supporting character in an almost too-efficient way, there’s a certain acknowledgment that every new detail in the case is a necessary signpost. When Cormoran hems and haws about meeting Robin‘s fiancé or when the show nods to discussions of Cormoran’s love life or family history, the show always seems more preoccupied with getting each investigation from clue to clue. Sidetracked by the necessities of the job and the expectations from a TV detective drama, there’s not a lot of need to revel in the nuance.

CB Strike Cuckoo's Calling

“C.B. Strike”

Steffan Hill/Cinemax

But despite all his best efforts, the trajectory of each of these stories leads Cormoran right into the usual Holmesian wrap-ups of the stories. Each chapter is meant to set up a different possible guilty party within each story. As Cormoran retreats to his memory palace or goes to confront a group of possible people responsible for whatever horrors happened throughout each episode, the show purposely leaves the door open so that anyone can be the culprit. So rather than feel like a mystery coming from an organic place, it’s more like “Clue: The Movie”: anyone can mix-and-match potential alibis based on who they like most, but the show has the definitive answer.

That might be truer to the novels, but it makes for a show that doesn’t demand you pay attention until the final 15 minutes. Each of these episodes makes room for some good character shading, especially as Cormoran and Robin’s working relationship develops. But those aforementioned flashbacks are a painful vestige from the show’s literary origins. With clumsy, hazy lensing and dreamlike framing, it’s such a blatant emotional manipulation that it’s hard for them to carry any heft.

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The last of this trio, “Career of Evil,” which plays out in the final two episodes, is somewhat of an antidote to what’s come before. Freed from most of the perfunctory explanation of how Cormoran fits into his current line of work and where all of the people in his inner circle fit into his psychological hangups, there’s a level of personal connection to the crime that fills in some of the gaps that plague “The Cuckoo’s Calling” and “The Silkworm.” There’s a certain openness, both from Cormoran and Robin and in the storytelling itself, that doesn’t feel confined by the detective mission lingering on the outskirts.

Whether or not Cormoran and Robin have the luxury of not being devoured by their work, Burke and Grainger make a great on-screen pair. Cormoran’s hardened exterior forces Burke to show the character’s inner turmoil in less obvious ways. There’s no gruff for gruffness’ sake, just Burke showing the product of Cormoran’s emotional erosion. Grainger plays Robin’s eagerness and apprehension in equal measure, being vulnerable when needed and tracking a growing sense of assertiveness which each passing investigation.

Overall, even with their best efforts, these seven hours can’t help but feel burdened by their origins, even if it’s a formula completed in a generally competent way. “C.B. Strike” isn’t out to rewrite anything, and maybe that’s a mistake. It makes for some steady, dependable viewing, but it always feels like there’s more for these two to explore.

Grade: B-

C.B. Strike” airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.

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