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In its ninth and final season, 'Endeavour' fulfills its mission to 'Inspector Morse'

<em>Endeavour</em> — a prequel to the <em>Inspector Morse</em> series — ran for nearly a decade. Its ninth and final season is airing on PBS's MASTERPIECE Mystery! Above, Shaun Evans as Endeavour Morse
Mammoth Screen and MASTERPIECE
Endeavour — a prequel to the Inspector Morse series — ran for nearly a decade. Its ninth and final season is airing on PBS's MASTERPIECE Mystery! Above, Shaun Evans as Endeavour Morse

We're living in hard times for originality. These days, both studio execs and audiences appear to mistrust anything they don't already know. They favor movies and TV shows that keep recycling popular characters and situations. And this isn't only true of mega-franchises like Star Wars or the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Consider the British crime series Inspector Morse which ran from 1987 to 2000. Based on novels by Colin Dexter and starring the charismatically grumpy John Thaw, that series was so beloved it engendered nine seasons of Lewis, a spinoff about Morse's boring sidekick that ended in 2015. It also spawned a far better prequel, Endeavour, whose ninth and final season is airing on PBS's MASTERPIECE Mystery!

Just as Better Call Saul is, in some ways, more interesting than Breaking Bad, so Endeavour offers more emotional richness than the series that inspired it.

Starring an excellent Shaun Evans, Endeavour is an origin story. It charts the pilgrim's progress of brilliant, headstrong Endeavour Morse as he goes from an idealistic young Oxford cop to the boozing, vaguely misanthropic detective made famous by Thaw. Just as Better Call Saul is, in some ways, more interesting than Breaking Bad, so Endeavour offers more emotional richness than the series that inspired it.

The new season begins with Morse returning to the force after months away dealing with his drinking problem. Even as he investigates a murder at the Oxford Concert Orchestra, the world is shifting around him. His boss and mentor, Detective Inspector Fred Thursday — played by Roger Allam — is soon moving to a station in another town. Thursday's daughter Joan, whom Morse has secretly loved for years, has gotten engaged to his hearty, mediocre colleague Jim Strange. And ratcheting up the tension, there's a sudden break in a case that Morse and Thursday had investigated years earlier, nearly getting themselves murdered in the process. Morse is warned off reopening the investigation — which threatens some very powerful people — but you think that'll stop him?

Roger Allam, left, as Fred Thursday and Shaun Evans as Endeavour Morse.
/ Mammoth Screen and MASTERPIECE
/
Mammoth Screen and MASTERPIECE
Roger Allam, left, as Fred Thursday and Shaun Evans as Endeavour Morse.

Now, it's one of the comical quirks of the series that, even though Morse is a genius who solves a brain-teasing murder in every single episode, his slower witted colleagues still scoff at his ideas in every single episode. They don't quite grasp that, in addition to his eye for arcane clues, he's got a keen sense of the human frailties that can lead to murder.

Thaw's original Inspector Morse was your classic offbeat cop — he drove a vintage Jaguar, loved classical music, didn't suffer fools, and wallowed in whiskey-drenched melancholy. Watching some old episodes again, I was startled at how Morse also seemed to chase everything in skirts. The show couldn't get away with that now. Still Thaw tooled around picturesque Oxford with such ravaged, romantic panache that he was an alluring fantasy of the world weary detective.

At the same time, Morse and his story were static. And it's here that Endeavour is the superior series. What carries the show aren't the mystery plots — their solutions are too clever by half — but the way it portrays Endeavour's spiritual education. Over the years, we see this honest, fresh-faced young man repeatedly stung by life: He's treated as a weirdo by colleagues, proves unlucky at love, gets betrayed by higher-ups, betrays his own highly rigid moral code, and sinks into alcoholism. He is condemned to a life of loneliness.

While the show keeps returning to Morse's unrequited love for Joan, its heart lies in the quasi-paternal relationship between the troubled Endeavour and the blokish Thursday, a family-loving World War II veteran who's given real emotional heft by Allam's layered performance. Their last scenes together are deeply moving, not least because both are so incapable of expressing their feelings.

Charged with an inescapable sense of loss, Endeavour's finale delivers the narrative closure and emotional weight that its many fans would hope for. Not that it's perfect. Perhaps hoping to please everyone, there are a few too many endings.

Even so, the series has more than adequately fulfilled its mission in the Morse Television Universe. By the time Endeavor hops into his Jag and identifies himself as, "Morse, just Morse," he's recognizable as the character we first loved in Inspector Morse. Over the course of a decade and 50 hours of TV, Endeavour has shown us the child fathering the man.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.