In the UK: Tuesdays, 9pm, BBC2. Available on the iPlayer
Well, if I’m going to start watching UK dramas again, I guess BBC2 – and a drama written by Jed Mercurio and starring the wonderful Lennie James (from Jericho et al), no less – is a good place to start. Line of Duty is a police complaints procedural that looks at an investigation into a top cop’s apparently spotless, amazing record to see how he manages it. Along the way, we get to see how the Met now deals with complaints – both officially and unofficially – while watching the police investigating themselves in a (to use a cliché) game of cat and mouse.
And while it’s actually pretty good, there’s a faint whim of the ridiculous throughout, to the extent you’re sometimes not sure whether it’s being serious, being deliberately funny or is simply having trouble taking itself seriously.
Here’s a trailer followed by the first four minutes or so. You’ll see what I mean about not knowing whether it’s supposed to be ridiculous or not from the the second video.
Following one multi-stranded investigation over five hours, Line Of Duty sees Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) transferred to AC-12, a fictional anti-corruption unit, after a mistaken shooting during a counter-terrorist operation. Alongside Detective Constable Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), they are assigned to lead an investigation into the alleged corruption by a popular and successful officer, Detective Chief Inspector Tony Gates (Lennie James). While Gates cleverly manipulates his unit’s figures, DS Arnott questions whether Gates’s being made a scapegoat for a culture of institutionalised spin, or is guilty of darker corruption?
Writer Jed Mercurio says: “I’m hugely excited by the opportunity to set a drama in the controversial realities of 21st century policing. Line Of Duty is a commentary on the perverse bureaucracy that hamstrings frontline officers, but first and foremost it’s a thriller.
“Lennie James is electric as DCI Tony Gates, a complex and elusive anti-hero, and a formidable antagonist for two of the most exciting young talents in British TV – Martin Compston and Vicky McClure – who play the relentless anti-corruption officers on his trail. Twists and turns are added by a star-studded cast including Gina McKee, Neil Morrissey, Adrian Dunbar, Kate Ashfield, Craig Parkinson and Paul Higgins.”
Is it any good?
The first episode is an odd combination. The direction is serviceable, but derivative: shakycam that isn’t quite shaky enough to give the impression of a documentary, but is shaky enough that you can’t help but think it would have been better if they’d stuck the camera on a damn tripod.
Despite the once-excellent Mercurio being behind both the writing and the production, the first 10 minutes have some quite painfully bad dialogue and plotting that makes me think he hasn’t quite recovered from his Strike Back experience. An anti-terrorist sergeant having to fill out the health and safety paperwork mid-raid? What a subtle way to make your point, Mr Mercurio.
Then there’s that faint whim of ridiculousness. For example, when Adrian Dunbar, the head of the investigation unit who’s out to get James, claims to know what discrimination is like because he’s Catholic Irish, so he can’t be racist, he says: “I’m blacker than anyone”. Is that supposed to demonstrate how clueless the police can be or is it a serious line? I can’t tell.
On the acting side, the lead, Martin Compston, is quite possibly the least charismatic person I’ve ever seen starring in a British drama – literally any other actor in the cast (particularly Vicky McClur) or possibly in the world would have been a better choice, to the extent that it’s about as exciting watching him Googling as it to see him running an anti-terrorist operation. It’s usually a fatal mistake to make the audience care about 20 times – maybe 21 times, just to be accurate – more about the criminal being investigated than the hero, but that appears to be the choice here.
We also have “and Neil Morrissey” (that’s how he’s credited for no good reason), Craig Parkinson from Misfits and Claire Keelan from No Heroics playing the comedy angle for all its worth, making it hard to take any of them seriously as the hardcore crime investigators they’re supposed to be. Morrissey even has a walking stick. No, seriously. He points at things with it, too.
But to counter all of that, after those first 10 dismal minutes, the dialogue picks up. It becomes well paced and does have some good action scenes. Lennie James is fabulous, as is Adrian Dunbar and Gina McKee (last seen being wasted in Missing) delivers a lovely, subtle performance that plays with viewer expectations, just as her apparent b-plot with James does, ratcheting up the tension with every twist. It’s also political, with cops showing off all their intriguing tricks for dodging investigative bullets, passing the buck and rigging the stats.
Line of Duty isn’t exactly a masterpiece. It’s not the new Between The Lines, either, but it’s got a lot going for it and James is almost always worth watching, so give it a try.