So, let’s talk about Whitechapel. I discovered it, as I tend to discover a lot of things, by picking up the first season randomly at the library. It concerns a group of detectives working in Whitechapel, London, and the various crimes they encounter. The first season is focused on a Jack the Ripper copycat, and the other three divide their time between various other cases – some with historical basis, and some that are just plain weird. The show goes a whole lot darker than what you’d expect from a police procedural, and earns its place in the horror genre. Sure, Whitechapel has its fair share of errors in addition to its great strengths, but I’m not giving a review today.
Well, not exactly. I want to talk about a single aspect of the show, one that I found interesting.
See, the first three seasons of Whitechapel are pretty much what you’d expect from a cop show, even one dipping its toes into the horror side of things. Horrible things are done, and horrible people are – eventually – brought to justice for them. Par for the course. But the fourth season jumps in with a completely different question. As the various crimes and misdeeds keep piling up, each of them somehow worse than the last, the characters start to ask themselves why all these things are happening in Whitechapel. Why do they have so many violent crimes and serial killers? And who is this woman who seems to be showing up in the periphery of every crime they’re investigating?
Pretty standard stuff for a crime show, right?
Now look at the trailer for the fourth season.
Folks, what we have here is a TV show trying a genre shift from your standard serial killer horror to supernatural horror. Even stranger, we have a TV show that actually pulls off a genre shift mid-story, without violating any of the history, rules, or logic it had previously established.
Now, TV shows have been playing around with genre for years. Remember the musical episode of Buffy? But there’s a small difference here. In the case of Buffy, the musical only lasted for a single episode and was explicitly caused by things already existing in the diagetic universe. Thus, it didn’t really change the nature of the show. It was played as a weird event in-universe, and – more importantly – not a recurring theme that would actually rearrange all of the rules and established history of the show that the audience had already accepted. The equivalent of the Buffy musical episode in a feature film might be a strange event that took about ten minutes of screen time and was eventually explained as being caused by drugs or something similar.
This is not what Whitechapel is doing with its fourth season. No, Whitechapel is threading in the possibility that supernatural forces and events are at work within the already dark world that the characters inhabit. Whitechapel goes a step further than that and also implies that the supernatural elements were present the entire time – the characters just didn’t know what clues to pick up on.
Strangely enough, this actually works. The fear and paranoia that the characters experience is matched by some strange camera effects that have always been at play in Whitechapel – but in the fourth season, suddenly seem very appropriate. Without spoiling anything, the supernatural elements are weaved into the storyline so expertly that the audience got to experience the same thing the characters did: struggling to understand a world where the rules suddenly and inexplicably change. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV show do something like this, adding in – or just revealing – elements of a completely different genre than the one presented in the initial storyline.
Even more interesting, in my opinion, is that Whitechapel didn’t change genres, per say: it switched subgenres of horror. Just think about that for a moment. This is a TV show that understood its own tropes so well that it could shift between to seemingly incompatible worlds of fiction (fantasy vs. realistic) in a way that didn’t throw the audience off.
That being said, there were fans of the show that didn’t like the direction that the fourth season took. The term jumping the shark was used. It’s also worth saying that Whitechapel was not renewed for a fifth season.
Still, that doesn’t detract from what the series attempted and – in my opinion – expertly pulled off. There is no exact equivalent to this sort of shift in film, for the simple reason that TV and movies just don’t work in quite the same way. I don’t think a film could pull off a shift like this so late in the story, so to speak. TV shows work on their own timeline, with each season working as an overarching story with individual chapters within it. Thus, there are chances for different seasons to go in radically different directions than the ones that came before or after. Another example of this would be Helix, though that show worked on a slightly different scale, timeline-wise, and I’d argue it wasn’t nearly as well executed.
This isn’t a review of Whitechapel as a whole, and I’m not going into the details of the storyline beyond this one feature. I enjoyed the show, thought it was well shot, and had some of the most sympathetic and interesting portrayals of a character with significant OCD in recent memory. It also took three seasons to add a woman to the main cast and never got around to casting any people of color in reoccurring roles. Whitechapel had its issues, sure. It also had some great cinematic and storytelling moments.
It also had this shift in tone and (sub)genre at the very end that I thought should be highlighted. I thought people should know about it.