Television is full of quirky detectives. That’s because they’re extremely entertaining – why would you want a mystery solved by a couple of sad-faced men in ill-fitting suits when there’s a good-looking snappy dresser who goes around throwing out brutally accurate insults available? But while the quirky detective has been a mainstay of English-language mysteries since Sherlock Holmes, Europe has largely been lagging behind (Inspector Rex aside) until the arrival of Belgium’s Professor T.
Professor of Criminology Jasper Teerlinck (Koen De Bouw) is a top criminologist at Antwerp University, the kind of forceful, mercurial lecturer that students never forget. So when Inspector Annelies Donckers (Ella Leyers), a former student of his who’s now a detective with the Antwerp police department, is faced with a campus rape case she can’t crack, she knows exactly where to turn for help. There’s just one problem: while Professor T might be a genius in the classroom, he’s a walking bundle of quirks and neuroses that make it more than a little tricky for him to operate outside of the university, let alone in the rough and tumble of a murder investigation.
The unwritten rules of the quirky detective character state that their quirks must set them apart from mere mortals. Even when a quirky detective has a skill that should draw them closer to people – increased empathy, perhaps, or a heightened ability to read people’s expressions or tone of voice – the end result is always that their abilities are a burden rather than a benefit. Empathy means you feel others pain; reading other’s expressions just means you know everyone is always lying to you.
For Professor T, his supreme crime-solving skills come with a range of social issues that render him distant and aloof. For one thing, he’s extremely germ-phobic. He’s a walking advertisement for hand sanitiser, he basically walks surrounded by a cloud of disinfectant and white gloves are always close at hand. But that’s not a bad thing when you’re dealing with crime – keeping your fingerprints away from the scene is simply commonsense. And as for the hallucinations, what great detective doesn’t have those? If hallucinating you’re playing a musical instrument is the price you have to pay for solving a murder, then so be it.
A bigger problem as far as the outside world goes is that Professor T isn’t exactly someone who suffers fools gladly, and his definition of “fools” can be pretty broad. And unlike similar series about high-strung geniuses – House comes to mind – his contempt for his inferiors isn’t softened by charm or verbal flourishes. If Professor T doesn’t like you, he’ll let you know in a way that’ll leave you in no doubt. But in a way, his blunt nature is charming – he’s so confident in his abilities he doesn’t need to be a smart-alec about it, and as a teacher, his no-nonsense manner is a perfect way to grab his students’ attention and teach them a lesson they’ll never forget.
What sets Professor T apart from your run-of-the-mill quirky detective is the crimes he’s called in to consult on. His very first case is a campus rape that echoes a crime that happened 10 years earlier (and may have been committed by the same perpetrator). Other crimes in the first season include a poisoning, a contract killing, kidnappings and the kind of seedy street murders quirky detectives rarely get involved with. Usually, their heightened abilities mean they deal with crimes that are more about puzzles than gritty street crime. Professor T might have his quirks, but the crimes he faces aren’t always bloodless mysteries – there are drug deals gone bad and dead call girls in there, too.
Likewise, Professor T’s quirks aren’t just there to make his crime solving more entertaining to watch. There are some real issues lurking behind his gruff manner and personal phobias, and as the series progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that getting out from behind his university desk and solving real crimes is taking a heavy toll on him. His private life isn’t much of a release either. His father died in mysterious circumstances, his relationship with his mother is a fraught one and, as far as romance goes, his past with police commissioner Christina (Tanja Oostvogels) is bittersweet at best.
Much of the fun of watching a quirky detective at work is the fantasy of being so good at your extremely important job that you could act like a complete jerk and everyone around you would have to deal with it. But being a jerk only gets you so far. What makes Professor T work is the person behind the fantasy. Being a jerk is fun, but it cuts you off from the people around you. Professor T has to pay that price to bring criminals to justice, and it’s that element of tragedy, no matter how small, that makes this more than just another gritty murder mystery.
The second series of Professor T is now streaming at SBS On Demand. Watch the first episode here: