There's Plenty Of 'Guilt' To Go Around In This Scottish Hit-And-Run Thriller

Sep 3, 2021

Ever since Watergate, it's become commonplace to say that it's not the crime but the cover-up that takes you down. While this may be true of political or financial malfeasance, sometimes a crime is so grievous that covering it up might seem to be the smart move.

That's the move that gets made in Guilt, a darkly comic Scottish thriller about two Edinburgh brothers who do a bad thing then scramble to avoid the consequences. The latest offering of PBS's Masterpiece, this four-part series has a verve that made me think of the TV series Fargo, which I mean as high praise. Supercharged by a live-wire performance by star Mark Bonnar, this show starts breezy — and then deepens.

Guilt begins with sleek Max McCall (played by Bonnar) and his shambly younger brother, Jake, driving drunkenly home after a wedding. On a deserted residential street, they hit an old man and kill him.

Guileless Jake wants to call the cops, but overbearing Max is a high-powered lawyer who insists that turning themselves in will ruin them. And so they drag the dead man back to his home and try to make it look like he died of natural causes.

At first, luck is on their side. It turns out the old man was dying of pancreatic cancer and the authorities assume that's what killed him. Then the victim's American niece, Angie — nicely played by Ruth Bradley — turns up for the funeral and begins asking questions. Before the brothers know it, they're dealing with a drunken detective, an old woman across the street whose deadpan demeanor hides all manner of invisible wiles, and a gangster played by the wonderful Scottish actor Bill Paterson (who's been in everything from The Singing Detective to Fleabag).

As if that weren't enough, Jake and Angie fall for each other — they bond over naming the best Bowie record — while Max's wife, Claire, who feels trapped in their glossy, soulless house, is being wooed by a woman at the gym. Max keeps telling Jake that everything is under control, but every time they think they're safe, a new witness or clue appears. The show practically echoes with the sounds of other shoes dropping — and it doesn't help that neither brother trusts the other.

Now, you may want to put on the subtitles when you watch Guilt — the accents are as richly Scottish as a deep-fried Mars Bar. But don't let that put you off. This is a program that grabs you. The tension never lets up, and yet it possesses a core of human feeling, starting with the warped relationship between the brothers.

A failed rock musician who now runs a floundering used record store, Jake is a sympathetic forest creature of a man — he's even bearded and shaggy — and he feels bad about their fatal hit-and-run. Warmly played by Jamie Sives, he's an essentially decent guy who becomes less eager to turn himself in when he falls for Angie and he finally has something to lose.

Even as we root for Jake, Bonnar's bravura as the hubristic, cold-blooded Max makes us yearn for his comeuppance. This pale, white-haired lawyer — with his gimlet eyes, vicious teeth and smug smile — resembles some sort of deep-sea barracuda that's been bleached from living so long with no light. Rivetingly awful and increasingly frantic, Max is the kind who, when he assures you that everything is fine, you better start looking for the exits.

Guilt is an apt title for the show, which offers colliding versions of what the word means. For Jake, guilt is personal — something you feel when you do something you know is wrong. For Max, it's a legal notion with no morality or emotion attached — if you get away with it, you're not guilty. In between, you find the show's other characters who, to different degrees, are all doing things they feel they shouldn't really be doing. There's plenty of guilt to go around.

Of course, in life there always is. As the late Ohio humorist Erma Bombeck famously said, guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the new PBS crime series "Guilt," two Scottish brothers try to avoid the fallout of a hit-and-run accident. The first episode premieres Sunday on PBS' "Masterpiece" and can be streamed on Passport and the Masterpiece Prime Video Channel. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says the series made him tense, but in a good way.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Ever since Watergate, it's become commonplace to say that it's not the crime, but the coverup, that takes you down. While this may be true of political or financial malfeasance, sometimes a crime is so grievous that covering it up might seem to be the smart move. That's the move that gets made in "Guilt," a darkly comic Scottish thriller about two Edinburgh brothers who do a bad thing, then scramble to avoid the consequences. The latest offering of PBS' "Masterpiece," this four-part series has a verve that made me think of the TV series "Fargo," which I mean as high praise. Supercharged by live-wire performance by star Mark Bonnar, the show starts breezy, and then deepens.

"Guilt" begins with sleek Max McCall - that's Bonnar - and his shambly younger brother Jake, played by Jamie Sives, driving drunkenly home after a wedding. On a deserted residential street, they hit an old man and kill him. The guileless Jake wants to call the cops, but the overbearing Max is a high-powered lawyer who insists that turning themselves in will ruin them. And so they drag the dead man back to his home and try to make it look like he died of natural causes.

At first, luck is on their side. Turns out the old man was dying of pancreatic cancer and the authorities assume that's what killed him. Then the victim's American niece, Angie - nicely played by Ruth Bradley - turns up for the funeral and begins asking questions. Before the brothers know it, they're dealing with a drunken detective, an old woman across the street whose deadpan demeanor hides all manner of invisible wiles, and a gangster played by the wonderful Scottish actor Bill Paterson, who's been in everything from "The Singing Detective" to "Fleabag."

As if that weren't enough, Jake and Angie fall for each other. They bond over naming the best Bowie record, while Max's wife, Claire, who feels trapped in their glossy, soulless house, is being wooed by a woman at the gym. Max keeps telling Jake that everything is under control, but every time they think they're safe, a new witness or clue appears. The show echoes with the sounds of other shoes dropping. And neither brother trusts the other because they're so different, as we hear in this early scene, when Jake asks Max how he slept.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GUILT")

JAMIE SIVES: (As Jake) How did you sleep?

MARK BONNAR: (As Max) Very well. My pillows are Hungarian goose down. They essentially cradle the neck.

SIVES: (As Jake) Can we talk about the fact that we killed a man?

BONNAR: (As Max) Why would we want to do that?

SIVES: (As Jake) Well, don't you feel that, Max?

BONNAR: (As Max) What?

SIVES: (As Jake) The guilt.

BONNAR: (As Max) Jacob was dying. Pancreatic cancer - that's a carnival of pain. If he was here now, he'd probably thank us.

SIVES: (As Jake) I think he'd want to at least touch on the fact that we killed him.

BONNAR: (As Max) Look. We gave him a dignified exit. Now someone finds him, he's spruced up. And there's not a dry eye in the church.

POWERS: Now, you may want to put on the subtitles when you watch "Guilt." The accents are as richly Scottish as a deep-fried Mars bar. But don't let that put you off. This is a program that grabs you. The tension never lets up it. Yet, it possesses a core of human feeling, starting with the warped relationship between the brothers. A failed rock musician who now runs a floundering used record store, Jake is a sympathetic forest creature of a man. He's even bearded in shaggy. And he feels bad about their fatal hit-and-run. Warmly played by Jamie Sives, he's an essentially decent guy who becomes less eager to turn himself in when he falls for Angie. He finally has something to lose.

Even as we root for Jake, Bonnar's bravura as the hubristic, cold-blooded Max makes us yearn for his comeuppance. This pale, white-haired lawyer, with his gimlet eyes, vicious teeth and smug smile, resembles some sort of deep-sea barracuda that's been bleached from living so long with no light. Rivetingly awful and increasingly frantic, Max is the kind who, when he assures you that everything is fine, you better start looking for the exits.

"Guilt" is an apt title for the show, which offers colliding versions of what the word means. For Jake, guilt is personal, something you feel when you do something you know is wrong. For Max, it's a legal notion with no morality or emotion attached. If you get away with it, you're not guilty. In between, you find the show's other characters, who, to different degrees, are all doing things they feel they shouldn't really be doing. There's plenty of guilt to go around. Of course, in life, there always is. As the late Ohio humorist Erma Bombeck famously said, guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.

BIANCULLI: John Powers reviewed the new PBS series "Guilt," beginning Sunday on "Masterpiece" and streaming on Passport and the Masterpiece Prime Video Channel. Monday on FRESH AIR, for the Labor Day holiday, we conclude our "Summer Of Soul" series with interviews with Mavis Staples and Gladys Knight. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE")

GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS: (Singing) I bet you're wondering how I knew, baby, baby, baby, 'bout your plans to make me blue with some other girl you knew before. Between the two of us girls, you know I loved you more. It took me by surprise, I must say, when I found out yesterday. Don't you know that I heard it through the grapevine? Oh, I heard it through the grapevine not much longer would you be mine, not much longer would you be mine. Oh, I heard it through the grapevine. Oh, I heard it through the grapevine. Oh, I'm just about, just about, just about to lose my mind.

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.