Film & Television

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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19 Comments

  1. Steven Edwards

    I have been binge watching professor t over the past two months. The first two series were utterly brilliant, with great humour, drama and emotional scenes to fill hearts and minds but, I am struggling with series 3.
    Two major characters left in series 2 and a 2 year gap to the third series hasn’t helped.
    On top of that, the PC brigade have got their claws on the show. It seems all ethnics either run a corner shop or are in prison. Actors appearing as another character is a bit confusing and the humour which seemed so innocently funny before is now very forced. It’s also amazing how someone no longer needs glasses when the sponsorship deal finishes too.
    Ella Leyers is a big loss to the show and “the new Annelies” just doesn’t seem right. “the new Daan” fitted in well but it hasn’t worked with her.
    As I said, series 2 and 2 get a 10 from me but series 3 is the tricky third album but well worth putting up with after the superb first 26 episodes.
    I only set out to watch a story or 2 ahead of the UK version but, by then, I was hooked.
    My only worry is the the UK version will be PC from the outset but, if it is half as good as the original it will be a good watch with Ben Miller and Frances De La Tour having marvellous comedy CVs.

  2. Possibly the best of the best! Engaging, smart and
    tricky. A wonderful quirky surprise that boosted our spirits in the midst of COVID. A complete winner!

  3. actually series 3 is the best of the three and stunningly literate and quite brilliant. But overall its great stuff. By the 3rd season, the average consumer of junk tv will be lost. Those with deeper expectations will be rewarded for waiting.

  4. I can’t seem to find the original Professor T set in Belgium. I just paid for MHz Mystery and find the Professor T remake set in Cologne, Germany. Anywhere other than PBS that l can see the original Belgian series? Much appreciate any help!

  5. B. Lodermeier – the original Professor T is currently available on Amazon Prime but only through 7/31 I think.

  6. In season 3, where are the prison scenes filmed? It’s a remarkably detailed set.

  7. R. Jurhajetz–Those fabulous prison sequences were shot at the Dome Prison (Koepelgevangenis) in Breda, The Netherlands. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koepelgevangenis_(Breda)

  8. I love this show & have been a fan since episode 1 . I have trouble watching U.S. t.v. series because they are so ‘one note’. The comedy shows must be all humour & the dramas must be all drama, & quite humourless. When they try to inject a dramatic situation into a sit. com., it always falls flat, & visa versa . I don’t know why the shows are written this way, because that is not how life works . In our saddest moments something quite absurd often happens & one minute we are crying with sadness & the next we are laughing so hard we cry.
    Mrs. Sneyers is without doubt my favourite character on the show, but all the actors effortlessly portray very complex characters. It’s a joy to watch.

  9. Can anyone identify the opera aria in Episode 3 which concerns a child’s kidnapping ? It aired again August 1.

  10. Thank you for such an in depth and perfect assessment!

  11. Thank you, Ms. Fendrich. Your review is right on the money and brilliantly written. The British remake is a disaster. They don’t get it at all.

  12. Victoria A Ozimec

    I completely agree with Ms Fendrich’s assessment of the original, the Flemish Professor T. And Barb’s dissing of the British version. I may also have struggled a bit to watch the first Flemish episodes but stuck with it and by the third I was hooked, to the point of paying for the Masterpiece channel on Amazon when that was the only way to get season 3. The pacing is such that one can easily read the subtitles while still being able to enjoy the art of the actors expressions and movements. I had access to the German version but skipped it as I read that it missed the sly humor of the original. Flemish version…love it. UK version…NOT! have watched it as it is better than most of the junk on TV but it is just not up to the original. The Professor is less likeable. The other characters are un-developed, lacking details that made them interesting. Ms Snares doesn’t hold a candle to the quirks of Frau Sneyers, her fruit, changing from heels to trainers when she REACHES her job, snapping out orders at Connie. Where are de Paepe’s dean’s scarf getting caught in the door, his jingling keys? The Professor’s germaphobia isn’t shown to us through everyone’s actions, it is just presented to us and we are supposed to accept it as a given. Despite the same basic story lines the episodes seem more superficial, lacking the detail of the Flemish version. And don’t get me started on the color mood they set; if I have to look at more orangey brown I am going to to barf. While flipping through the TV broadcast guide to see what’s on, if I find Professor T I usually select that channel no matter how many times I might have seen the episode. The telling point was two nights ago, I changed to that channel, found it was an UK episode I had seen and went looking for something better. One viewing was enough.

  13. What is the name of the closing theme music?

  14. I was a serious junkie for the original Flemish Professor T series through all three seasons and at least one rerun of each. The UK version is a real bore. Upon reflection, modernism in art, architecture and film (not to mention psychology and sexual attitudes) has generally flourished in Europe. The bloodless restraint of Oxbridge as the new setting should have warned me off. Yet I have still watched it, hoping for an evolution of sorts. The biggest disappointment is the new Donckers actress: none of the workplace strength and private passion of the original.

  15. I wholeheartedly agree with the comments on the lack of passion in the UK Annelies. Her interactions with her father are missing the underlying love and concern along her passionate impatience with catching the criminal.

  16. I have searched the internet and have found no mention of the paintings briefly seen in Professor T so maybe someone here has knowledge of what I’m about to say. 3 times in the course of the 3 seasons there has been an image that’s reappeared in different forms or stages. Its first appearance is in the seaside house owned or rented by the Professor’s mother. In the house she has set up a studio and is painting a surreal, Belgian born Magritte-looking piece that seems to be a portrait of her son that is not going well so she removes her progress by brushing everything out with black paint. The portrait’s second appearance is on the wall of Flament’s spartan office during an episode where she is interacting with her new flame Serge. It appears to be a fully finished version of the painting the Professor’s mother had blacked out in her seaside studio. Its presence is so odd in that there is nothing artful in any of the offices that would distract from the business at hand. The third portrait’s appearance takes place at the very tail end of season 2 after the professor has been arrested and is placed in the dark holding cell. Within the extremely dark cell there is no light bulb. The door to the cell has a large security screened opening allowing light from outside to enter the cell. The Professor is standing at the rear of the cell room. A square of light illuminates his face while also casting his shadow just behind him, replicating the dual figure composition in the previous 2 paintings. I think these 3 portraits were done on purpose and I think it emphasizes what the show has done throughout and that is to show us not only the Professor’s outer life but his shadow self, his subconscious self that is normally out of view to everyone else, even possibly to himself.

  17. Earlier this morning i described and submitted an observation about the Professor T show that has yet to appear in this site’s comment section. Was there a problem with it? Should I resubmit it? Please let me know. Tx

  18. For B. Lodermeier:

    you can see Professor T. the belgian original version on Prime Video Amazon

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