Des is unsatisfying in every way possible, and thank God it is. Focused on the real life investigation and trial of Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen, it seems that the three-part series is a complete departure from typical ‘true life’ crime shows. The audience sees nothing of the horrific crimes committed, and the killer is caught in the first ten minutes, but the show still manages to keep viewers hooked by positing the simple question – why does Des give in so easily?
It is clear from the start that everything is not what it seems. The police are called to a group of flats whose drains have been blocked by human remains, from that point on, we are left hooked. Almost immediately, Nilsen shockingly confesses to murder, and to far more murders than anyone thought he had committed. As the investigation begins, Nilsen practically spoon-feeds the police, giving them all the information they need except one crucial thing – the names of the victims.
David Tennant plays the formidable namesake of the show, Dennis Nilsen, and his portrayal is utterly sinister, to say the least. Tennant has played some creepy and compelling roles before but his performance in Des is completely commanding and brilliantly controlled. As the wicked narcissist and monstrous killer, Tennant’s character is constantly changing. The cool and colloquial man, who cares only about his dog, metamorphoses in seconds into a forbidding and sinister figure. It’s these masterful changes in the lead performance which manage to completely entrap Des’s viewers.
Equally, Daniel Mays holds his own as Detective Peter Jay, masterfully playing the increasingly disturbed police officer, bound by his job’s moral duty. He manages to seamlessly balance the character’s troubled personal life with the stresses of the circumstances. To that same effect, Jason Watkins, as biographer Brian Masters, also does well, bringing another angle into the series: the moral circumstances of profiting off the fame of a serial killer. However, at times the part does seem underwritten, and only in existence as the shows’ creators failingly tried to add more depth.
The larger problem, however, is the conclusion. As the series builds to its courtroom culmination, the final episode creates more questions than it answers. Likewise, some of the most interesting aspects of Nilsen’s life aren’t addressed at all such as what happened during and after his imprisonment. But in a series that looks at a small, focused period of time, not everything can be addressed.
Crime TV shows have a sinister appeal to many audience members, but the genre has become played out very quickly – Des is a brilliant foray into challenging the genre’s conventions, something which works especially well in particular alongside the peculiarity of these crimes. As Nilsen puts it himself, in the show: “it totally amazes me, people’s attraction to the macabre”. The ITV series feeds audiences who are hungry for this ominous content, but in a new, refreshing way.
Image credits: Penguino K via Flickr