Boxset Monday: Criminal (season one) (Netflix)

Like the best bits of Line of Duty distilled into 12 episodes set all round Europe

Available on Netflix

You all watch Line of Duty, don’t you? What do you watch it for? Is it the soapy relationship issues? Is it the arcane, interwoven plots, more padded with red herrings than a Hull Little Chef circa 1976? Is it its totally plausible view of police corruption investigations or equally great insight into how real criminals operate?

Of course not. It’s the interrogation scenes, when the brave officers investigating the corrupt coppers confront them with acres of incriminating evidence, resulting in a confession or at the very least said coppers tripping over a lie and incriminating themselves. They’re tense, marvellous studies of human interaction and how you can use mere words to get someone to do something they absolutely do not want to do.

Kudos then to Netflix for realising this and creating a show that’s entirely Line of Duty interrogation scenes: Criminal.

And if that were the limit of the format’s inventiveness, there wouldn’t be much to talk about. But Criminal is also Netflix’s new ‘gateway drug’.

The streaming service is arguably the world’s only truly international TV network, both acquiring and more importantly commissioning TV shows from around the world and then showing them in other countries.

Fancy watching Brazilian TV tonight? Then not only has Netflix got some of Brazil’s existing TV for you to watch, it’s also making entirely new shows for you in Brazil that you can watch.

That’s its USP and one that Amazon et al haven’t yet really started to emulate.

Criminal: Germany

Euro cop

The question is: how to make someone in the UK, say, want to watch Brazilian TV? Sure, there’s always a few internationally minded people willing to experience other country’s TV – I imagine they’re all TMINE readers, too – but that’s a minority interest.

So how do you get everyone else to at least try those bucket-loads of foreign TV you’ve got? Getting them started is the hardest part, but if you can do it they might end up staying on your service to watch more…

Do you do a co-production and film in loads of different countries? Maybe, but that’ll cost a load of cash.

So a final kudos to Netflix for turning in probably its most international while simultaneously cheapest ever TV show, despite being set in four different countries.

It’s also one of its best. Hello, Criminal.

Criminal
Criminal: UK
Criminal: France
Criminal: Germany
Criminal: Spain
Criminal - Spain
Criminal: Spain

Criminal intentions

Criminal’s genius is in its simplicity. It’s an anthology show of 12 episodes in which the police question someone in a spartan interrogation room. The person in question might be a witness or the police’s prime suspect for a crime. The police’s job is to divine the truth of the situation and get their detainee to divulge the information they need.

Each episode features a different detainee, but the same police… up to a point.

Because Criminal is broken down into four separate blocks of three episodes, each block being set in a different country and filmed in the local language – the four countries in question being the UK, France, Germany, and Spain.

The police themselves are usually mid-tier, well known actors from their respective countries, the detainees slightly higher tier ‘names’, such as David Tennant, Hayley Atwell, Inma Cuesta, Sara Giraudeau, Peter Kurth and Nathalie Baye. The big names come in and show off their acting prowess with the regulars in a 40-minute long two/three-hander that’s almost entirely dialogue.

Criminal: Spain
Criminal: Spain

Streaming theatre

The result is something that paradoxically for Netflix is almost purely theatrical. Despite different exterior views, Criminal‘s 12 episodes are all set in exactly the same room – even the corridors outside the interrogation room are the same, right down to the coffee machine.

Despite very different policing traditions, the procedures are almost identical, too – badge numbers being given out by the Spanish cops for the recording are more or less the only noticeable difference for the cops.

That said, the defence lawyers’ roles and limits vary considerably between countries, with the UK lawyers sometimes helping both defendant and the cops, the French lawyers blackmailing and using leaked information, the German lawyers taking over from the defendant altogether and the Spanish lawyers being told to shut up or get out by the police.

But in essence, beyond a little chat in the UK episodes about this being ‘a special unit’, there’s no attempt to even suggest this is really how interrogations are done in the respective countries – and anyone who’s watched Engrenages (Spiral) knows just how different French interrogations can be from British ones, and that’s before we start considering the different roles of judges.

This is really just a take on the interrogation and policing issues, distilled down to their raw essence.

Criminal Germany
Criminal: Germany

Different strokes for different folks

To the show’s credit, there’s a lot of variety not just between but within countries. For those wanting the individual stories, here they are:

UK

  • Has a well spoken doctor (David Tennant) raped and killed his teenage step-daughter?
  • Has a working class woman (Hayley Atwell) murdered her sister’s husband?
  • Where has a truck driver (Youssef Kerkour) left his cargo, which may contain some dying migrants?

France

  • Was one of the famous survivors (Sara Giraudeau) of a terrorist attack really there?
  • Did the owner of a construction site (Nathalie Baye) kill the leader of a strike?
  • Did a homophobic sales manager (Jérémie Renier) really attack a gay man?

Germany

  • Is a well known building developer (Peter Kurth) responsible for the death of a handyman on his site nearly 30 years ago?
  • Did a Turkish immigrant (Deniz Arora) beat his wife? And if so, why has his father-in-law paid for an expensive lawyer to defend him?
  • Can the wife (Nina Hoss) of a serial killer be persuaded to reveal where her husband hid the body of one of his victims 20 years ago?

Spain

  • What happened to the lover of champion dog breeder Carmen Machi?
  • Did a disturbed woman (Inma Cuesta) drown her autistic sister?
  • What laws will the police bend to get a notorious drug dealer (Eduard Fernández) for his past crimes?
Criminal: France
Criminal: France

Police story

But as well as those 12 stories, there are four others: the stories of the police themselves, stripped over each of the three episodes to create what are effectively another four episodes. It’s here that we see more of the essence of each country’s style and concerns.

The UK is all about bureaucracy and the fear of the unit being shut down. Why has the head of the UK unit (Katherine Kelly) brought her ex-boyfriend (Nicholas Pinnock) back to work in the unit? And who is the guy ‘in training’ (Shubham Saraf) who sits in on their interrogations? There’s also the constant need for correct procedure, as well as political pressure.

In France, ethics and justice are a little more flexible, with at least one person who would have been sent down in the UK getting a “that’s for you to live with, not for us to decide” conclusion. However, there are concerns familiar from Braquo et al, as a young new unit head without any apparent experience (Margot Bancilhon) is promoted over the previous captain (Laurent Lucas). Other members of the unit are against her, so how can she prove herself before they stab her in the back?

In Germany, it’s a little bit less ensemble, with most of the supporting cops having little to do with the story. Here, it’s more of a two-hander, with a constant tension between the old East and the new West, as well as young and old, with top Eastern-bloc interrogator Sylvester Groth doing things old-school, which sometimes works with the equally old school, but finds him in conflict with new (pregnant) Western-style boss Eva Meckbach. Which way is better? And will Groth toe the line?

Lastly, in Spain, it’s all about ethics, as cop couple Emma Suárez and Álvaro Cervantes slowly drift apart over their different attitudes to morality and what can and can’t be done. But two of the three stories are also comedic at times, which sets them apart from the otherwise somber affairs from other countries.

There’s a certain variety in that storytelling. The UK’s police story is spaced months apart and is, for lack of a better word, episodic. There are plot threads and hints that never get picked up, disorientating you. You don’t feel like you’ve had a whole story, just parts of one, which actually works in its favour. In contrast, the Spanish one plays out over mere days and has a definite end, but feels rushed as a consequence.

Politically, they have their concerns, too. The UK is naturally all about the migrants, France sees terrorist attacks in night clubs, Germany is more worried about money affecting justice, and Spain is still worried about Arab terrorists – and Arab integration, as well as those pesky Catalans.

David Tennant in Criminal: UK
David Tennant in Criminal: UK

Crime story

To a highly consistent degree, all these individual stories are at least ‘very good’. They’re well written, well acted and have some interesting things to say, both about their subject matter and policing in their different countries, as well as politics, occasionally.

The stand-outs are:

  • France’s Sara Giraudeau story – a nice reunion in itself for fans of season three of The Bureau, seeing as Laurent played her ‘handler’ in that season, resulting in similar interrogations.
  • Germany’s Peter Kurth story
  • Germany’s Nina Hoss story
  • Spain’s Eduard Fernández story

However, it’s fair to say that with the possible exception of France’s Giraudeau story, none are ever ‘excellent’ – never quite as good as Line of Duty‘s interrogations, at least. In some, evidence is plucked from thin air as necessary and no one really ‘tricked’ into revealing everything – the UK’s David Tennant story relies on a handy piece of forensic evidence popping up at just the right moment, for example.

If you expect there to be a ‘gotcha’, it rarely comes and while there are twists, in even the best of cases, you can almost always see them coming. Cuesta’s provides the only real surprise of the bunch but although its conclusion makes it worthwhile, Cuesta’s story is snooze-inducing for its first half and not exactly going to win any awards for positive or accurate depictions of mental illness.

The flipside of the lack of gotchas is that one of Criminal‘s themes collectively is that interrogations aren’t necessarily about gotchas. They can be about empathy and understanding, give and take, the creation of rapport, and bargaining. Here, the Hoss and Kurth stories really work well.

Spain’s stories collectively are the worst of the bunch, even though they have the strongest ‘cop’ story. The UK’s are middling and don’t have quite as much to say as Germany’s, even though the show’s creators (Killing Eve‘s George Kay and Jim Field Smith) are from the UK, as are its biggest names.

Which means it’s the French stories that take the lead. Giraudeau’s story is probably the best of the series and has the best gotcha. But they also provide greater variety of approach, often ending up as a mutual exploration by the police and the suspect of the evidence, to try to work out what did happen. Perhaps subconsciously the stories are more in keeping with the inquisitorial nature of that country’s justice system. It’s only really Germany’s Hoss story that competes on that score.

Criminal France
Criminal: France

The perfect gateway drug

Criminal is the perfect size to get people watching foreign TV. The three-episode run for each country is just enough to tell a story and whet the appetite for more, without satisfying it. The fact the format is identical between countries means you can watch the next set of episodes and that will feel like you’re getting what you want.

I didn’t think I’d make it through all 12 episodes in one weekend, but I did and had time to spare. While the Spanish episodes dragged a little, even those were worth watching in the end.

I’m not a big fan of the crime genre, but if you love theatre, then like me, you’ll probably love Criminal.

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