Living up to its title, Guilt is the Masterpiece equivalent of a guilty pleasure, a darkly amusing four-part thriller (airing over two Sundays) from BBC Scotland featuring characters who are so crooked you wonder how they stand erect.
The exception being Jake (Jamie Sives), a laid-back mensch of a record-shop owner who’s drunkenly driving his uptight lawyer brother Max’s car home from a wedding when, just minutes into the first episode, he hits and kills an old man. Max (Mark Bonnar), whom Jake earlier accused of having no soul, won’t hear of alerting the police, fearing professional and personal repercussions.
Instead, he initiates a clumsy cover-up worthy of Laurel and Hardy. Turns out the victim was dying of cancer, anyway, so heartless Max figures: “We just made it quick.”
As this black comedy of errors and sibling animosity escalates, a remorseful Jake sheepishly falls for the victim’s American niece, Angie (Ruth Bradley), at the wake, taking his assignment of “getting into character” to extremes. Meanwhile, the slick and vicious Max squirms with impatience, which erupts into apoplexy when Angie gets suspicious about her distant uncle’s demise and refuses to let six-feet-under relatives lie.
Blackmail, adultery and a dangerous money-laundering scheme also factor into the twisty plotting, which doesn’t always hold up once you realize nearly everyone in Guilt is guilty of something. Thankfully, the series is so briskly paced that there’s little time to ponder the improbabilities.
The menacing Bonnar and likably scruffy Sives make for a fascinating contrast as the incompatible brothers, but the series’ real scene-stealer is Emun Elliott as Kenny, a sad-sack alcoholic private detective Max hires in hopes he’ll screw up the case. Instead, Kenny views the assignment as a gesture of friendship and as an avenue of redemption.
As Kenny stumbles ever closer to the truth, he helps turn Guilt into the best kind of immorality fable. And while this feels like a limited series with a satisfying if sour conclusion, happily there will be a second season. Will they call it Guiltier?
Guilt, Series Premiere, Sunday, September 5 and 12, 9/8c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)