“Have you seen… ?”
At the local café and the nearest bar, with old friends and new acquaintances, this is how the question begins. “Have you seen… ‘Rick and Morty’? ‘Getting On’? ‘Black Mirror’?” (No, I have not. Apologies in advance.) Though I only began writing about television regularly earlier this year, the fact that I answer “no” so frequently shames me. I watch more TV than anyone I know. How is it possible for so much to slip through my fingers, only to come up again as I wait in line for punch at a holiday party? What am I doing with my life?
In truth, I have been catching up. I filled in my biggest blind spot, “The Good Wife,” by watching all 122 episodes since the day after Thanksgiving, which is pretty sick even for me. And I relented to the question I’ve received most often of late: “Have you seen ‘Peaky Blinders’?”
Why yes, I have. And so should you.
“I have no sympathies of any description,” gang leader Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) says midway through the first season, but the BBC Two/Netflix co-production, set in Birmingham, England in the years following the First World War, evinces an affinity for street subcultures and the gangster genre that runs deeper than the series’ bloody, pulpy sheen might suggest. “Peaky Blinders” recasts the era of “The Knick,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Boardwalk Empire” in swaggering post-punk style — if the high-fade haircuts are any indication, the titular crime syndicate practically invented the hipster — but it never relinquishes its soulful core.
In the first season, the Peaky Blinders dominate bookmaking in Birmingham, but the Shelbys — including Tommy’s dissolute older brother, Arthur (Paul Anderson), and their hardened Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) — attract the attention of Chief Inspector Chester Campbell (Sam Neill) for political reasons rather than vice. The Blinders pilfer a crate of war materiel bound for Libya, and none other than Winston Churchill dispatches Campbell to prevent the stolen arms from falling into the hands of the Irish Republican Army or “Bolshevik” Freddie Thorne (Iddo Goldberg), the dashing Communist agitator sleeping with Tommy’s sister, Ada (Sophie Rundle).
“Peaky Blinders,” then, delivers more than a few blows to the dainty conservatism of “Downton Abbey,” replacing proper manners and cross-class harmony with a sulfuric aversion to the idea of Britain itself. To wit, in a key moment near the end of the second season, which features the Blinders’ expansion into London and a subsequent gang war, two characters prepare for looming chaos as voices warble “God Save the King” in the distance. This, I’d venture, is the link between the series’ period setting and its aesthetic anachronisms: in the irreverent strut of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ main theme, “Red Right Hand,” or in visual allusions to the menacing Thatcherite skinheads of Shane Meadows’ “This Is England” (2007), writer/creator Steven Knight (“Locke”) uncovers a through-line in the social history of disaffected white men.
For the series’ many malcontents, at least, the war severs the bonds between veterans and civilians, privates and prime ministers, and both the memory of trauma and the order of army life continue to structure the characters’ lives. A shell-shocked man in a bar, Tommy’s opium-fueled dreams, accusations of shirked service, barks of “Yes, sir, sergeant major!”: in “Peaky Blinders,” the military experience inflects all that follows. “We’ve been home a long time now, Arthur,” Tommy says. “The war is done! Shut the door on it! Shut the door on it, like I did.”
Masculine bravado has its dramatic limits, of course, and “Peaky Blinders” suffers the familiar fate of series that prefer women to be objects of love, lust, or familial loyalty rather than agents of their own destiny. With the exception of McCrory’s demanding matriarch, the female characters largely fade into the scenery; even Campbell’s skillful investigator, Grace Burgess (Annabelle Wallis), ends up just sitting around in a pretty dress.
Similarly, the series falters in its engagement with the ethnic rivalries among underworld figures, allowing slurs — “wop,” “kyke,” “darkie” — to stand in for drama, and thereby missing an opportunity to trace the political narrative to its logical conclusion, which is that the elite creates white, working-class resentment that ends up being redirected toward other, more marginal groups. (All that said, the main reason to tune in for the second season is Tom Hardy as Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons, in a magnetic, thick-tongued performance of languid motion and wild eyes that verges on the comic but stops just short.)
With blistering, beautiful details, from a perfectly composed police raid on a coal-black block of flats to a small splotch of blood on a fancy coat, “Peaky Blinders” recalls the panache of Quentin Tarantino — and, unfortunately, mimics certain of his authorial shortcomings. Nevertheless, the series is willing to examine the damage wrought by aggressive masculinity while embracing cockiness as a sort of aesthetic imperative. The energy in “Peaky Blinders” is still more potential than kinetic, perhaps, but there’s never any doubt where its sympathies lie.
The first two seasons of “Peaky Blinders” are available on Netflix. A third season is currently in the works.