One of the best television shows of the year so far is a wrenching meditation on the power of grief. Loss, in the series, can take over your mind. It can lead even good people to horrible acts of violence. It can destroy you and everyone around you. It can tear the very nature of reality apart.
You might think I’m talking about Disney+’s “WandaVision.” But this description also applies to Netflix’s less hyped, but far superior, “The Irregulars.”
You might think I’m talking about Disney+’s “WandaVision.” But this description also applies to Netflix’s less hyped, but far superior, “The Irregulars.” “WandaVision” is part of the hugely popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its twisty plot and multiple surprise reveals generated a billion fan theories and think pieces. “The Irregulars,” with lesser-known stars, no franchise tie-in and a lower budget, is unlikely to be that kind of hit. But if you do tune in, in its quiet way, this show will break your heart.
“The Irregulars” sounds initially like a feminist reworking of Sherlock Holmes stories. The series is about a group of street kids hired by Holmes' John Watson (Royce Pierreson) to investigate a series of crimes and murders. The teens are led by the resourceful, determined Bea (Thaddea Graham) and her younger sister, Jessie (Darci Shaw), who has been experiencing frightening and debilitating nightmares. As in the recent Netflix film “Enola Holmes,” younger girls replace the older men as the heroes.
But as the story unfolds, it’s becomes clear that this isn’t really an empowerment fantasy about how people other than white men can solve mysteries. Instead, it’s a darker story about how some mysteries can’t be solved and about the hubris — and danger — of claiming to have all the answers.
“You like to be exceptional,” one character tells Sherlock Holmes (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). “People enjoy your explanations because they give a false sense of order to chaos. ... I think we are standing on the brink of something that doesn’t have order or reason.”
That thing they are standing on the brink of, the thing that doesn’t have order or reason, is grief. The crimes in London are caused by a supernatural weaponization of sadness. Grieving people are gaining access to great, macabre powers that allow them to wreak revenge on their enemies and, with helpless bitterness, on friends and passersby, as well. Crows gouge out eyes; people’s faces are sliced off; body parts disappear.
The corrosive effects of loss aren’t confined to the villains. Holmes, when he shows up, is a hopeless drug addict who's gutted by past failures. Watson is not the genial, level-headed doctor we’ve come to know from Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Instead, he’s a bitter, violent, angry man torn by his partner’s disintegration and his own guilt.
With the adults incapacitated, the kids must rely on themselves. They’re damaged as well; many of them spent their youth in workhouses, where they were neglected and brutally beaten. But Jessie slowly learns she has supernatural powers of her own. Leopold (Harrison Osterfield) is a prince; his hemophilia makes him vulnerable, but his resources and knowledge prove invaluable. Billy (Jojo Macari) provides brawn, and the dashing Spike (McKell David) holds them together with level-headed good humor. Their greatest resource is their love for one another. But it’s also their weakness.
The biggest misstep for “WandaVision” was its reliance on supervillain antagonists to resolve its story about loss. Evil witches and robots are wheeled out at the end of the series to provide big, spectacular battles.
But grief wounds without force rays; it can turn those you care about into ruthless enemies. Your comforters, your reason for living, can suddenly abandon you. Worse, they can turn on you.
"The Irregulars" is a melancholy mosaic of ghosts. One of the supernatural monsters has lost his baby; another, her husband; a third, her chance to have a family. They cause pain because they are in pain.
Bea has compassion for all these broken, angry things. She and Jessie, both orphans, are those broken things themselves. Their grief is their foe, embodied by their dead mother. She is the series’ real antagonist — an implacable, inescapable foe, intimate as love and as terrible. Grief isn’t love persisting, as “WandaVision” would have it; it’s love curdled and poisoned. Thaddea Graham, in a brilliant performance, shows you Bea’s strength and compassion. But in the end, she is willing to betray her friends and the world to bring her loved ones back.
“The Irregulars” isn’t perfect. Where “WandaVision” starts strong and loses its way in a thicket of over-explication toward its conclusion, “The Irregulars” is slow to pick up steam. The first few episodes meander around default “mystery-of-the-week” plots. They’re enjoyable mostly for the character interactions — especially for the flirtatious, magical, will-they-won’t-they chemistry between Bea and Leopold. Early on, viewers would be forgiven if they thought they were watching Netflix’s answer to CW teen soaps.
But the narrative quickly gathers bleak momentum. The final episode is a truly devastating, ruthless exercise in dashed hopes and escalating loss.
“How do you stop loving someone?” Bea asks Watson. “When you don’t want to love someone anymore because it hurts too much, how do you stop?”
Watson doesn’t have an answer. In “The Irregulars,” there’s no choice but to go on loving and to care for each other in our grief.