The BBC has chosen July to air two new drama shows that feel like they’re reasonably direct offspring from last year’s The Shadow Line, even though they themselves are quite different from one another. Normally too such dark shows would feel out of place in the middle of summer, but nature had taken care of that and left us with a distinctly cold, dark and wet noir-ish feel to the weather that makes these two shows feel perfectly scheduled after all.
Blackout – the story of an alcoholic, corrupt councillor – is set in some unidentified big city, probably but not necessarily northern, where it rains even more than it does in a typical David Fincher movie, making it an ideal reflection of the 2012 British summer. Of the two shows on offer, Blackout is the one to inherit The Shadow Line’s style genes, with every frame beautifully designed and shot and the whole feel like a shining modern film noir complete with blonde femme fatale and a detectives’ office straight out of a 1940s LA-set crime flick.
The characters are similarly larger than life and overblown, sometimes too much so despite a top notch cast led by Christopher Eccleston and including Dervla Kirwan, Ewen Bremmer, a cameo from David Hayman and a strange role for man of the moment Andrew Scott (recently Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock.) As the noir genre requires, the characters are all deeply flawed but they also aren’t particularly subtle – and neither is the plot. It also doesn’t go in much for realism along the way, with Eccleston’s character apparently able to recover from a shooting, decide to run for major, get on the ballot, run a campaign, win and set up an administration in less time than it takes another character to organise a funeral and bury their father.
Realism is very much the watch word for Line of Duty, however. Written by Jed Mercurio (who created the scathing Cardiac Arrest back when he himself worked in the NHS) the main driving force behind this drama is to show the disastrous bureaucratic shackles that the police have to hack through to do their job. To follow one set of rules invariably means running foul of another set; to do what a superior officer tells you to do one day will earn you a rebuke the next. Finding a way to play the system with optimal effect gives rise to instant suspicion and an investigation. The last thing anyone has the time, inclination or freedom to do in such circumstances is worry about fighting crime.
The whole thing is shot in a very ordinary, realistic fashion (although there are a few nice directorial flourishes here and there) and the performances are very reigned in, portrayed by small grimaces and ticks in extreme close-ups. Lennie James is superb as Gates, the senior officer under investigation; and Martin Compston equally amazing and every bit a match for James as Arnott, the young anti-corruption officer hunting Gates down. Both characters seem quite decent and honourable men in their own ways: Gates cares for his family and about doing his job well and catching the crooks; and Arnott is principled and unbending in standing by the truth only to find himself hated for it. But each man is trapped by his past missteps, and also now by the mutually destructive vendetta that breaks out between them as a misunderstanding and the action of others.
Of the two shows, it’s probably apparent from the preceding paragraphs that I much prefer Line of Duty. When it sets aside its unsubtle agenda forever referring to filling out risk assessment paperwork during a high speed car pursuit and by health and safety and adherence to targets, it’s also the show that delivers The Shadow Line’s inheritance of being a gripping and highly unpredictable conspiracy thriller about real, believable characters that you genuinely get involved in. With the latest turn of the storyline there’s a risk that the final two episodes will go over the top, but I have high hopes that it will be able to steer on the right side of histrionics to the end.
The more style-over-substance Blackout doesn’t match up to this, but it’s nonetheless a more than worthwhile watch that is very entertaining and absorbing in its own way. It’s rather a shame it comes along at the same time as Line of Duty and so soon after The Shadow Line making comparisons inevitable, because Blackout comes off second best in that company while actually being a very welcome piece of accomplished original drama in its own right.