Posted in Television

Line of Duty Revisited

The Backbone of AC-12: Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compson) and DS Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure)

In answer to the question, “What’s the best cop show on TV today?” the only possible response for me is the British series “Line of Duty.” If you haven’t done so already, head over to Acorn TV, where you can stream the first two seasons; the third is available on DVD and the fourth just started airing in the U.K. (And if you come here to spoil, I will rain curses upon your head).

The primary focus of “Line of Duty” is the work of a police anti-corruption unit. Each season features a different investigatory target, a so-called “bent cop.” While I’ve previously written about Keeley Hawes’ tremendous performance as Lindsay Denton in the show’s second season, it was only recently that I had the opportunity to binge on what I had missed. Watching Seasons One and Three back to back, I was amazed yet again at the quality of what I was viewing.

Jed Mercurio, the creator and author of the show, is a master of both plot and character development. As an example, take the introduction of Steve Arnott (Martin Compson), soon to become a key player in AC-12. At our first encounter he’s the head of a counter-terrorist squad, about to lead a raid on a suspected nest. To his shock he finds the wrong house invaded and an innocent man shot dead with his baby in his arms. Though his superior literally dictates to all officers involved the cover story they must follow, Arnott refuses to toe the party line and is cut from the squad. Impressed by his resolve in the face of pending career suicide, Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) recruits him for AC-12, where he joins undercover specialist Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure).

Mr. Mercutio not only writes well, he writes smart. Not one of his characters is without ambiguity, not the least of whom are the suspected bent cops. Season One’s DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James) seems at first blush to be a perfect role model with a phenomenally high clearance rate; he’s the recipient of an Officer of the Year award. (The fact that two other awarded cops later come to less than desirable ends makes you wonder about the future of Kate Fleming, who will similarly be honored at the end of Season 3). We soon learn that this great leader and the epitome of professionalism is sinking into a pit of moral quicksand not entirely of his own making.

Conversely, your first encounter in Season 3 with Sgt. Daniel Waldron (Daniel Mays), an Authorised Firearms Officer, is certain to raise your hackles from the start. Our introduction consists of seeing him cold-bloodedly kill a suspect who’s already surrendered, and pressure his squad to fabricate evidence to corroborate his cover story. His arrogance and self-righteousness during a subsequent interview with AC-12 are difficult to take, and this is only a warm-up for what’s to come. While it may be hard to believe, you’ll later come to have a certain measure of sympathy for this man, despite the despicable acts he commits. The same level of detail features in the depiction of the show’s regulars. Our upstanding men and women of AC-12 are not without flaw. Steve’s behavior toward Lindsay in Season Two, playing on her loneliness and insecurity in an effort to discover whether she’s crooked or not, makes for uncomfortable viewing (and indeed blows up in his face in Season Three). And Kate’s relationship with DS “Dot” Cotton? Is her flirting with him part of the job (and if so–yikes!)? If not, where are your brains, girl?

“Line of Duty” is unique in its lengthy interrogation scenes as AC-12 confronts a suspect. This is not just a plot “gotcha”—it’s a superb showcase for the actors, especially Adrian Dunbar, who as Hastings leads the interrogations. He’s the master of minimalism: a slightly lifted eyebrow or that small quirk at the corner of his mouth is all it takes to signal that he’s just not buying what the suspect is attempting to sell. Equally impressive are the plot twists and turns, which for some reason you can’t always see coming yet never seem far-fetched. Everything seems to grow organically out of the action we see in the first episode of each season.

To be sure “Line of Duty” has some lapses. I doubt an AC unit would be permitted to interrogate a member of its own squad. And you’d think by now the police grapevine would be buzzing about Kate’s undercover activity. But who cares when a show is this good?

Posted in Television

Line of Duty

Honest, that’s Keeley Hawes (with Martin Compston and Vicky McClure)

I’ve just spent six hours watching the best suspense drama I’ve seen in a very long time. Series 2 of “Line of Duty,” a BBC product now available in the U.S. on DVD, is certainly not your average procedural. Its inner engine is an uncanny combination of outstanding writing by Jed Mercurio and a superb performance by Keeley Hawes as DI Lindsay Denton. To see television acting and writing so intertwined and executed at such a high level is a rarity.

The series opens with a tense sequence that you’ll need to replay later on, probably more than once. Denton is the replacement duty officer on the night she catches an emergency call from another officer in charge of a witness in protective custody. The witness has been threatened and must be relocated that night. But things take a horrific twist when the two-car convoy transferring the witness is ambushed, Lindsay’s car is sideswiped into a tree and the vehicle carrying the witness and three police officers is sprayed by automatic weapon fire, doused with gasoline and set alight. Only Lindsay and the horribly burned witness survive.

Because this botched operation screams “inside job,” Lindsay comes under the scrutiny of AC-12, a police anti-corruption unit. Lindsay is initially interviewed by Police Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) and DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston). She comes across as a drab, put-upon drudge (If Ms. Hawes’ name weren’t on the DVD case, I never would have recognized her minus makeup and sporting what must be the ugliest brunette wig ever created). Unmarried, she’s had to downsize in order to afford her mother’s nursing home care. As the story unfolds, the members of the AC-12 team variously suspect her of incompetence, recklessness and outright corruption. Her finances are scrutinized for bribes. DC Kate Fleming (Vicki McClure), another member of the AC-12 team, goes undercover to serve as her aide in investigating missing persons cases while keeping a close eye on her. There’s never a moment when Lindsay is not under scrutiny.

It’s the “Is she or isn’t she?” that makes this vehicle go. You’re never sure of Lindsay. On the one hand you feel sorry for her. When she protests at one point “Being a police officer is the only thing left to me and now you want to take it away,” it seems AC-12, and Kate Fleming in particular, have gone off the deep end with their suspicions. And yet there are times when Lindsay seems far too glib, too ready with an explanation or excuse when an investigator points out an inconsistency in her story. And in fact, when you go back to the rapidly unfolding events of that first episode, there are certain points at which her reactions and responses seem somewhat off. Even more damning is the fact that she’s got a mean streak–at one point she smashes a bottle into the face of a noisy neighbor and bangs her head into the ground. So don’t be surprised to find yourself siding with the doubters in AC-12 on more than one occasion.

As Keeley Hawes notes in a special features interview in the DVD set, “When I first read through the scripts to the end of Episode 5, I still couldn’t tell whether she was a goodie or a baddie.” That’s what makes this series of “Line of Duty” so extraordinary—the ability of Jed Mercurio and Ms. Hawes to sustain that ambiguity over six hours without faltering for a moment. Ultimately all is revealed, but it’s to the credit of Mr. Mercurio that he never flinches in telling this story. There are a number of brutal events that occur—the murder of yet another police officer, Lindsay’s treatment by her fellow officers and her arrest and imprisonment, all of which are shocking in their unexpectedness. But the resolution—if you can call it that—while not necessarily a happy one, is not unexpected in a drama that treats its audience like adults.

Kudos all around.