I hadn’t realised until I saw the publicity for series 2 that the original run of Line of Duty that aired last July had been the most watched original new drama on BBC2 for ten years: I suspect this achievement was subsequently eclipsed by the even bigger success of The Fall, but that merely serves to put it into even more impressive company as far as I’m concerned.
It’s a quick return for writer/creator Jed Mercurio’s police drama, but it immediately seems a very different beast. The first season was essentially a head-to-head confrontation between Tony Gates – a wildly successful, popular and charismatic Detective Chief Inspector played by Lennie James – and AC-12 anti-corruption officer DS Steve Arnott who was out to prove Gates complicit in ilegal activity and bring him down with the help of DC Kate Fleming. The structure of the original six-parter was evenly split between the characters of Gates and Arnott, with the audience invited to make up their own minds as to which – if either – was on the side of the angels. Gates, after all, brought down the bad guys while Arnott was using the absurdly Kafka-esque police procedures and health and safety regulations to entangle him over seemingly petty transgressions.
While the character of Gates does not return for season 2 for reasons obvious to anyone who saw the first series, Arnott (Martin Compston) and Fleming (Vicky McClure) are back along with their boss Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) and new recruit DC Georgia Trotman (Jessica Raine from Call the Midwife, An Adventure in Space and Time and Doctor Who episode “Hide”) and this time the target of their investigation is DI Lindsay Denton played by Keeley Hawes (Ashes to Ashes, Spooks). Unlike the first season, in this story Denton is no obvious hero and indeed is a complete enigma to us: this time we are firmly in Arnott and company’s shoes in trying to figure out just what is going on and who exactly is responsible. That makes this Line of Duty in many ways a more traditional and conventional type of crime thriller, but at least that means it has also dropped its slightly tiresome soapbox preaching about the unfair burdens of paperwork and overbearing scrutiny that the police toil under. Anything that it might have lost is more than made up by the shock-upon-shock developments of season 2, which instantly grip us by the throat and refuse to let go.
The opening titles crash us into the middle of a crisis situation in which Denton is the night duty officer responding to an urgent call for assistance from a detective on witness protection detail. Their convoy is then ambushed while travelling along a side road and three police officers are killed, the witness critically injured and only Denton escaping comparatively unhurt, thereby coming under suspicion of having been complicit in setting up the ambush in the first place. While Arnott and Trotman investigate the circumstances of the deadly attack, Fleming goes undercover as Denton’s aide in a missing persons cold case unit; but just when you think things are settling down and you can see where the story is going, there’s a real gutpunch at the end of the first episode when a second attempt is made on the life of the mysterious, unidentified witness recovering in hospital.
Hawes is terrific as Denton, a character the polar opposite of Gates and indeed far removed from the usual dynamic, self-assured roles that Hawes herself usually plays. She’s a pale and nervous character with little actual front line policing experience, having made her career in back office roles. Never popular with other police officers, things are now even worse as her perceived incompetence is blamed for the deaths of her three fellow officers. At first our sympathies are with her – she’s just someone out of her depth, hung out to dry for a series of well-meaning but ultimately catastrophically poor decisions; who hasn’t been in a similar corner at some point in their lives? But toward the end of the episode events conspire to make us look at her actions in an entirely new light and we realise that we haven’t a clue what is actually going on here – making Denton far more fascinating in her way than Gates.
The returning cast (Compston, McClure and Dunbar) are all on top form and it’s great to have already got to see more of their personal lives in this first episode of season two than we did in the whole of the first season, while Raine makes an impressive début outing and immediate strong impression as new girl Trotman. We’re yet to meet many others caught up in the case, although Deputy Chief Constable Dryden (Mark Bonnar, in a part originally intended for Robert Lindsay before ‘creative differences’ saw him exit) is clearly going to figure large as is Richard Ackers (Niall Macgregor), the widower of the witness protection detective who is himself a police officer – and also having an affair with DS Fleming. Tangled webs, indeed.
The first episode was outstandingly good, a triumph of pace that mixed action, mystery, shock and character to perfection. Things will undoubtedly slow down from here on and I’m looking forward to starting to discover just what is going on. Most of all I’m certainly hooked by the beginning of season 2 in a way that I never quite was with the ambitiously less conventional first series. Others might be put off by the change in style, but it certainly gets a positive thumbs-up review from me.
Line of Duty airs on BBC2 on Wednesdays at 9pm and is available on DVD from March 24 2014. Series 1 is already available on DVD.