Art and TV: Professor T, an extraordinary burst of mind

Koen de Bouw as Professor Jasper Teerlinck on Professor T

Contributed by Laurie Fendrich / Boy did the otherwise on-the-mark Guardian television critic Lucy Mangan get it wrong. In her 2017 review of the Flemish detective series Professor T,  she dismissed the show as “thin gruel” with “morsels pilfered from the greats” (by which she meant such television shows as House, Sherlock, Morse, and Monk). Moreover, she said, its humor is “lost in translation.” What? Did she watch the same show I did? Doth the woman not laugh and weep? Doth the woman not recognize tragicomedy? In short, how did she miss that Professor T is the best television series since The Singing Detective, the riveting 1987 miniseries starring Michael Gambon?

Professor T, which ran from 2015-2018, was created by the Belgian Paul Piedford, whom I’d never heard of before but now consider a screenwriter god. The series is 39 episodes, streaming in Flemish with excellent English subtitles on PBS Masterpiece and MHz via Amazon Prime. The program was hugely popular in Belgium; O.K., sure, Belgium is a very small market, but the show also appeared in several other countries, and there are remakes in German, French and Czech, and one now in the works in Britain. An American version is also possible. In short, Professor T’s salient qualities—including its blazing humor—are hardly lost in translation. 

The eponymous central character is Jasper Teerlinck, a famous professor of criminology at a university in Antwerp. He’s played by the handsome (a former model) Flemish actor Koen de Bouw (pronounced “Koot de Bow”). The professor sports a metrosexual buzzcut with short, side-swept bangs, wears the black-rimmed eyeglasses favored by fashionable architects, and dresses like an arty Brooklyn dude. De Bouw plays him with an almost expressionless face, as if the professor has Bell’s palsy and struggles to manage even a half-smile, and has him move as if he’s part robot. De Bouw, however, delivers such a magnetic performance that, odd as his character Teerlinck is, he conveys personal mystery and profound depth.

Professor Teerlinck claims he studies criminology and is not a detective. Yet at the start of the series, a star ex-student, Detective Anneliese Donkers (Ella Leyers), marches into his university office and begs him to work with the police on a difficult murder case; without much resistance (and whether from vanity or a fascination with true crime we aren’t sure), he says yes. He goes on to solve the case (surprise!), and the police, though most of them find him arrogant and crazed, grudgingly admire his unconventional sleuthing ability and extraordinary talent at sussing out who’s lying. The first couple of episodes are admittedly rocky—dumbish plots, a muddled sense of whether we’re watching comedy or drama, and a confusion about whether the show is a detective show (it is) or a long psychological plumbing of the professor’s character (it’s this, too). Get through the first three episodes, however, and you’re hooked.

Faculty office: Professor T, at right, with Detective Anneliese Donkers (Ella Leyers) and Dean Walter De Paepe (Carry Goosens)

The detective stories we follow from episode to episode are smart, tightly knit whodunits in themselves, but as the series progresses, they almost turn into background noise to the riveting drama about the professor. We learn in the first season that Professor Teerlinck’s father committed suicide when the professor was a child, but as the particulars of the trauma are revealed in Seasons Two and Three, the event turns out to be more complicated than it seemed at the start. As the professor’s memory sharpens over time—with the help of his psychiatrist, Dokter Helena Giselbrecht (Barbara Sarafien), he (and we) understand the truth of what happened to his father differently. And in the shattering and cathartic conclusion—I’m dancing around a spoiler here—the tragedy is not at all what we’d imagined.

Teerlinck is a brilliant social scientist who lectures to a room of enthralled students—which is to say he understands, in an intellectual way, how to use and explain statistics and how to apply the psychology of depravity to solving crimes. At the same time, he’s deeply versed in the full humanist tradition, and can cite authors from Plato and Rousseau to Shakespeare. Like Poirot (the Belgian precursor of Teerlinck, whom Piedford surely had in mind when he created Professor T), Teerlinck absorbs the smallest details of a crime scene and knows how to read the mere flick of an eyelid during an interrogation as the giveaway someone is lying.  Like all great detective heroes, from Poirot to Morse, Vera, Sherlock or Jimmy Pérez in Shetland, the professor is inevitably the one who—following a road of clues not taken by others—figures out who’s the perp.

Alas, the professor suffers from a variety of unspecified psychological disorders, including OCD, a severe case of germophobia that causes him to always wear disposable rubber gloves and spray surfaces with disinfectant, a terror of people getting too physically close to him, and an utter inability to feel empathy for others. To soothe his soul, or perhaps as a way of seeing if he can make himself feel something, Teerlinck listens to classical music via old-fashioned records, played on a phonograph. He also hires female escorts who come to his home, although it’s never clear whether he has sex with them or they’re just attractive dinner partners who mercifully punctuate his solitary existence.

Administrative secretary Ingrid Sneyers (Goele Derick)

Some in the professor’s police and university circles loathe him, but others, though flummoxed and frustrated by his eccentric behavior, feel a protective, even tender, regard toward him. These include Walter De Paepe (Carry Goosens), the old, balding Dean of the Faculty, who is so obsequious toward Teerlinck he always backs out of his office while bowing, and the hilarious Ingrid Sneyers (Goele Derick), the administrative secretary with a stiff red-haired wig who oversees Teerlinck’s department in a manner that’s like every administrative secretary in every academic department in every university in the world. (She also ferociously loves the professor the way a mother bear loves her cub.) There’s also Christina Flamant (Tanya Oostvogels), the police commissioner and, as we discover, the Professor’s ex-girlfriend, who still has feelings for him, or perhaps even still loves him. And though his omnipresent mother Adelinde Van Marcke (Viviane De Muynck, in a wonderful grand guignol performance) is an oppressive, domineering battleax of a woman, in her own destructive way, she loves him, too.

Viewers get to see Professor T not merely from an outside point of view—the way other characters see him—but from inside his head. And that head is a truly fantastical place with (to use a Jane Austen phrase) “extraordinary bursts of mind.” His is a mind that, without warning, suddenly slips from perceiving an ordinary person standing in front of him to seeing a huge yellow-feathered bird or a vulgar hooker. And in an unforgettable scene anyone who’s ever had to endure an insufferable superior understands, the professor has a burst of mind where the Dean instantaneously turns into a clown with a big red nose. In Professor T reality and dream merge, and what’s imagined is no more absurd than the quotidian world Teerlinck, with his fragile sanity, must somehow navigate. 

Professor T includes a list of memorable characters played by superb actors that’s too long to list here, and the episodes contain many stand-alone police detective that are satisfying in themselves. More, it brings to the fore the biggest problems troubling the human race—how to balance emotions and intellect, either one of which, if out of proportion, will destroy a person; what it means “to be fully human”; and most important, what, exactly, is truth, and why we uncover it at our peril.

Professor T, created by Paul Piedfort, 2015-18, available via MHz on Amazon Prime and PBS Masterpiece.

About the author: Laurie Fendrich is a painter, writer, and professor emerita of fine arts at Hofstra University. Based in New York City and Lakeville, Connecticut, she is currently working on a new series of abstract paintings.

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