Inspector Morse went to seminary and he's now a priest. Or at the least the actor who plays Morse on PBS's "Mystery!", John Thaw, has taken on a new role that requires a clerical collar.
In the three-part "Masterpiece Theatre" production "Monsignor Renard" (9 p.m. Sundays through May 21 on WQED), Thaw plays the title character, a priest in occupied France at the outset of World War II.
With the mayor (Geoffrey Hutchings) of Sainte-Josse giving in to the Nazis at every turn and local sawmill owner Dufosse (Michael Attwell) building Nazi barges, Renard finds himself taking a leadership role as he alternately defies German rule while attempting to keep his parishioners safe.
It's primarily the dialogue that makes "Monsignor Renard" such a satisfying drama. It's snappy speechifying -- especially Renard's homilies -- reminiscent in its intensity of the writing for "The West Wing."
Sunday's premiere introduces the characters and sets up the conflict between Renard and a Gestapo officer.
"You will show proper respect for the Germany Army," an officer shouts at Renard in the church sanctuary.
"On the day you extend the same courtesy to the church," Renard snaps back.
Renard's brother is among the townsfolk, and his one-time fiancee (Cheryl Campbell) remains a friend. Her daughter falls for a German soldier, while another woman in the town worries her marital infidelity is the reason her son is missing.
Though the Germans are clearly the bad guys in "Monsignor Renard," there is some gray area. The young soldier in love with the French girl isn't really a bad guy, and actually proves to be a more likable chap than one of the girl's French friends.
Perhaps the most bizarre turn of events occurs in Episode 2, airing May 14, when Dufosse's wife (Barbara Kellerman) discovers her mother was Jewish. This prompts her blowhard husband to wonder aloud what exactly constitutes a Jew before he apologetically reveals her ancestry to the high-ranking German officer staying with them.
Accents, or the lack thereof, account for the only mark against "Monsignor Renard." Most of the French characters speak with British accents, making it confusing in Episode One when a British soldier shows up and sounds the same as the Frenchmen.
"Monsignor Renard" takes place from July 1940 through the end of that year, so plenty more episodes are possible as World War II drags on. PBS and the British company responsible for this first installment have not yet made plans for a second series, but they certainly should.
Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.