Handsome but hollow, Steve Knight’s period crime drama Peaky Blinders (Thursday, BBC 2, 9pm) split opinion when it first aired late last year.
While some rightly praised the series for its cinematic beauty, pulpy action and for shinning an interesting light on a previously ignored city, others soon became frustrated by its threadbare plot and scantily drawn characters.
Telling the story of the Peaky Blinders, a ruthless gang who terrorised the streets of Birmingham in the early 1900s by using razor blades sewn into the caps to slice their enemies with gory precision, the show was grand and daring in its ambition – even if it couldn’t quite live up to its own expectations.
The question looming over series two is: can it finally fulfil its potential and marry fashionable flourishes with narrative fluency to win over the naysayers? On the basis of last night’s thrilling series opener it is certainly in with a chance.
It is two years on from the unsatisfying cliff-hanger of series one and business is booming at unprecedented levels for the Shelby family. Thrust immediately into the glitz and salacious excess of the roaring 20s, we find crime boss Tommy (Cillian Murphy) plotting to expand his business into the big smoke of London, a dangerous ambition that drags his family into a bitter feud between two warring gangs.
Part of the problem with the first series was its deliberately unhurried pacing, which often frustrated because it emphasised the heavy-handedness of its stylistic flourishes. But Knight’s script for this episode is more tautly written, eliminating much of the clunky exposition and using the time to drive the story into deeper and darker areas.
There’s ample drama to be drawn from Tommy’s ambitious plans, with Knight seemingly taking inspiration from The Godfather by framing the Shelby’s as a powerful crime family who want to go legit but find themselves drawn into a mire of violence and corruption through sheer force of habit and who start trying to tear each other apart as a consequence.
But family feuds are not the only problem Tommy has to face in series two as he quickly makes an enemy of a fearsome gang of cockneys – as if the show needed anymore dodgy accents – and also has to cope with the return of Campbell (Sam Neill), who appears to have survived an assassination attempt to land a cushy promotion to the secret service, and is now back in town seeking revenge.
Murphy continues to be an engaging lead, bringing a steely intensity to Tommy whilst also suggesting the repressed vulnerability of a man shattered by war. The rest of the cast, however, still fail to register, coming across as an uninspiring collection of tired genre ‘types’, such as Neill’s vengeance-seeking antagonist with a limp and an ornate cane, and Joe Cole’s John Shelby, a petulant child trying to prove himself as a man.
While Knight has clearly channelled Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal gangster drama for the plot, aesthetically Peaky Blinders still feels like a cinematic western. This episode is steeped in slow-motion shots of characters striding through dark streets that are shrouded in a thick, noirish fog, all set to a throbbing, distorted indie soundtrack. Whatever the show’s perceived shortcomings, you have to concede that it is undeniably cool.
This stylish and dapper series may not boast the narrative invention and complex characterisation required to rank among the very best TV dramas, but what it does provide is a thoroughly entertaining romp through a world of violence, murder and family loyalties – one that is constantly expanding in scope and growing in ambition.
Click here to watch Peaky Blinders – series two: episode one on BBC iPlayer