"Peaky Blinders" is yet another show about a morally compromised, heterosexual white man who grapples with the results of his bold and even violent behavior as he struggles to realize his ambitions.
That's not just a brief description of the U.K. series, which arrived on Netflix in 2014 -- that sentence could serve as the summary of dozens of good, great and mind-numbingly derivative anti-hero dramas that have aired during the past decade and a half. Even if you're a fan of the finest incarnations of the form (and I am), that kind of thing has been done to death during the past couple of decades.
That's another way of saying that I approached "Peaky Blinders" with extreme caution. Could there really be all that much life left in the anti-hero bag of tricks?
The answer is yes: I'm happy to report that I fell hard for "Peaky Blinders." However familiar its building blocks, the U.K. gangster drama is positively bursting with irrepressible energy, and it's proof that, whatever a show's premise, capable execution is everything.
In a way, I'm glad I didn't watch "Peaky Blinders" last year, when the first two seasons arrived on Netflix in the U.S. If I'd watched it in 2014, I would have had to grapple with whether to put it on my Top 10 roster, which was already ridiculously difficult to pare down.
As it is, now that I've seen both seasons (each of which is six episodes long), I think it would have missed my Top 10, but just by a hair. The second season of "Peaky Blinders" isn't quite as strong as its first, but I'm still eagerly awaiting the day Cillian Murphy and the rest of the cast don their jaunty newsboy caps and start production on Season 3.
Murphy is key to the success of the show; his performance is as crucial to "Peaky Blinders" as Jon Hamm's performance is to "Mad Men." Neither of those shows would work without those actors doing such fine and subtle work in those roles, and making it look absolutely effortless. Both actors are able to turn on a dime and go from tender to vicious in an instant, and both make you care about the difficult men they play without sugarcoating any of their characters' unsavory behavior.
In "Blinders," which begins in 1919, Murphy plays Tommy Shelby, the leader of a Birmingham clan running an illegal betting operation. Though they're behind various forms of illegal activity, the local cops are in their pockets and the Peaky Blinders are the law in their rough neighborhood. Business is good for the Blinders, but Tommy wants to expand the bookie operation and make it legit, a plan that is complicated by the arrival of an unyielding government agent who is determined to clean up the city and reign in its gangs.
So far, so familiar; you'd be forgiven for thinking it sounds like a U.K. version of the stately and strangely bland HBO period drama "Boardwalk Empire," which takes place in the same time frame. But past those surface elements, the shows are very different. One of the reasons I developed an addiction to "Peaky Blinders" is because it reminds me of another HBO period piece, the profane and violent "Deadwood," which was, under its mud-splattered surface, a devastatingly tender show about the power and promise of community. Though many of the characters from "Deadwood" were driven by their least attractive qualities, all of them longed for some kind of connection, and that quest -- for both domination and relief, for understanding amid the chaos -- animates "Peaky Blinders" as well.
As is the case with the town of Deadwood on the HBO show, the outdoor set for "Peaky Blinders" is a marvel. As Tommy and his brothers Arthur and John stride around the alleys and lanes of Small Heath, the neighborhood they rule firmly but generally fairly, blast furnaces often shoot fire out of wide doors, and the air rings with the sound of metal on metal. Rough-hewn men tote heavy sacks, carts rumble by on the cinder-strewn streets, grimy children run around and play, and women shop and gossip. No one pays the foundries and furnaces any notice, in part because the entire neighborhood is dominated by workers, machineries and noise. Wide shots depict the biggest factory of all looming over the neighborhood like a giant, smoke-belching monster. There's a river, but it's no nature preserve -- it's a good place to hide cargo and dump bodies.
All these elements add excitement and visual drama to outdoor scenes that might otherwise be mundane, and they remind the viewer that walking out the door is dangerous for every person in that neighborhood, whoever they are. The pubs and factories are full of Communist agitators and IRA operatives; the corrupt and brutal police are regarded as just another gang that has to be dealt with. The black lanes, the grimy house fronts, the noisy pubs, the furnaces running hot 24-7: These backdrops continually reinforce the idea that toughness is necessary for every character in Small Heath, and they're also reminders of everything Tommy would like to escape.
Murphy is the still point around which the entire show revolves, but his undeniable presence and charisma make the enigma of Tommy fascinating. He's not a man given to chit-chat, but it's impossible not to wonder what lurks behind his cornflower-blue eyes. Is it cynicism? Weariness? Arrogance? All of these things are possible, and Murphy's performance is so restrained and wisely calibrated that it's a genuine jolt when Tommy engages in violence -- or just laughs.
Tommy, like his wayward older brother Arthur and many of their friends, is a veteran of World War I's many horrors, and though "Peaky Blinders" is fond of big moments and grand gestures, it can be heartbreakingly subtle when showing the damage the war did to these men. Arthur, for instance, is clearly afflicted with PTSD, and though violence gives him temporary release from his demons, they become harder and harder to control. Tommy has more control over his public persona, but Murphy gives the character's swagger a subtle overlay of weariness. At times, Tommy's eyes have the quiet exhaustion of a man who hasn't had a full night of restorative sleep since the war began, and the higher his ambitions rise, the lonelier he becomes.
Tommy could abandon his trouble-prone brother and his tough-as-nails Aunt Polly (the magnificent Helen McCrory) and the rest of the Shelby brood. He's smart enough to make it in London or New York or anywhere else he might choose to live. But part of what sets "Peaky Blinders" apart is its devotion to the idea that we are nothing without our tribes. He's not demonstrative, but creator Steven Knight and Murphy find various ways to show that Tommy loves Arthur, and Tommy can't live without the sense of camaraderie and purpose the Blinders give him.
Tommy is trapped by circumstance: He inherited the leadership slot in his family and there was never any possibility of going a different way. But why would he want to? The alternative would be letting men like government official Chester Campbell (Sam Neill) complete the utter domination of the lower classes by the toffs at the top, and given their backgrounds and temperaments, the Shelbys would rather die than let that happen. Part of the sheer enjoyment of "Peaky Blinders" is watching Tommy and his crew exult in their rebelliousness; the show uses rock songs to great effect and its stylistic flourishes are of a piece with the Blinders' cocky, flashy style. Looking over my notes on the first two seasons, the word that comes up again and again is "vitality": At its best, "Peaky Blinders" exudes lively distillations of anger and tenderness, frustration and fear. On a nuts-and-bolts level, the show has distinct flaws, but it excels at creating intense moments and visceral moods, and that makes up for a lot.
I've long said that the English showrunner model is a double-edged sword, and "Peaky Blinders" is yet more proof of that. As is the case with many U.K. dramas, Knight wrote every episode of the first two seasons (two other writers share credits with Knight on a couple of Season 1 episodes). For that reason, the show has the kind of aesthetic unity that you find on dramas like "True Detective" and "Penny Dreadful," U.S. shows that have adopted the one-writer model. The problem with that gambit is that even good writers tend to repeat themselves, and over time, their favorite go-to dynamics and character moves become stale (see "Downton Abbey" for an endless array of examples of this problem). Part of the reason Season 2 of "Peaky Blinders" is less compelling than Season 1 is that certain character interactions start to feel repetitive and even a little predictable (I'm keeping things vague for "Peaky" newcomers).
The U.K. model of only having six episodes or so also works against the show, in that there's usually not enough time to give most supporting characters reasonably full story arcs of their own. At least two female characters could have used more screen time in Season 2; as it is, their story lines feel far more perfunctory than they should. (That assessment doesn't necessarily apply in either season to McCrory's Polly, who owns every scene she is in. She's fabulous, and I'm in favor of Season 3 giving her even more to do.)
That said, Knight's thriving career as a screenwriter worked in his favor when it comes to "Peaky Blinders" -- I think. Knight wrote the Tom Hardy film "Locke," and you can be the judge of whether the actor's energetic scenery chewing as a Season 2 gangster is a good thing or a bad thing. The slice of ham Hardy delivers may well be a mixture of both.
Like other aspects of "Peaky Blinders," Hardy's performance is juicy and not tremendously concerned with subtlety. But then again, subtlety may not be the best fit for a story of men who roam the streets with razors stuck in the brims of their caps. This is a show that doesn't necessarily care much about refinement and restraint; it's cheeky and theatrical and unafraid to dwell on frailty and fury. "Peaky Blinders" is, like "Deadwood," a drama that has a great deal of compassion for its compromised characters, whatever rung of the ladder they happen to be on. Tommy Shelby may not be a good man, but he's a phenomenally watchable one.