Chasing Shadows S1 E1-2 “Only Connect” (ITV)

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Contains some mild spoilers for the first two-part story.

ITV’s new crime drama Chasing Shadows is an oddly bloodless affair, resembling nothing so much as a piece of low-cost flat pack furniture where the individual components parts are familiar from other efforts and promise a decent end result, but which instead turns out to be so bland and anonymous that it fades into the background never to be thought of again, merely serving its purpose and filling some space for as long as it lasts.

The very set-up of the show sounds almost comedically clichéd: a mismatched pair of investigators, bucking against authority and improbably tasked with hunting down serial killers while working out of the civilian Missing Persons Unit rather than the Met’s murder squad. Given that one of the investigators is brilliant but anti-social to the point of breathtaking rudeness it seems that the particular immediate template for the show is most likely the Nordic Noir series The Bridge in which one of the cops was strongly implied to be high on the spectrum of Asperger’s or autism. This is similarly the case with Chasing Shadows complete with added traits of OCD and Tourette’s for haphazard good measure, although whereas Saga Noren’s character was used as a darkly satirical commentary to subvert gender and national stereotypes, here there is a complete absence of any equivalent intriguing subtext.

Perhaps to avoid encouraging comparisons with The Bridge, Chasing Shadows has reversed the genders of the two leading characters so that the male role of DS Sean Stone is the one who is emotionally closed down, brusque and unfeeling with a blinkered focus on facts and data and on getting the job done – a dull stereotype, despite some very accomplished and intelligent playing by The League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith. Meanwhile the female character of Ruth Hattersley (Alex Kingston) becomes the warm, emotionally accessible, nurturing and motherly role balancing work with home life, so that the whole thing ends up producing a set-up that sends us instead all the way back to the cop show gender clichés of the 1970s and completely misses the point of modern convention-challenging shows like The Bridge.

In fact as a whole Chasing Shadows seems to be completely disinterested in any of the more nuanced aspects of writing a modern crime drama, especially when it comes to character. Today’s audiences are very interested in the psychological aspect of why criminals do what they do, but this show gives absolutely no insight into why the perpetrator in the first two-part story goes round killing people. They’re simply messed up and bad and what more do we need to know? It’s less insightful that your average 1970s episode of Starsky and Hutch in terms of investigating the criminal mindset; although you can argue that at least this mirrors DS Stone’s own disinterest in anything other than facts, figures and patterns.

Not that even the lead players get much in the way of interesting material to work with either. Stone is very much the sort of character you’d put together after a cursory reading of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (although the final scene actually then torpedoes this, either intentionally to disprove the autism assumption or else through a lack of understanding of the condition) while Hattersley is beset with a mother and a serial-killer-obsessed teenage son and still finds time to overshare her own chequered past with one of the runaways rescued during the investigation. A third character – played by Doctor Who and Kidulthood star Noel Clarke – seems to be present purely as a more conventional dynamic action lead to do the running around/tackling/shouting parts of the job and who is otherwise given little else to work with. He does get to bed another character in a bizarrely out-of-context scene seemingly only present to make the audience go “Oh, wasn’t expecting that,” except of course we were because it was obvious.

It’s a shame because the lead actors – Shearsmith, Kingston and Clarke – are really going far above and beyond the call of duty in their work here, and in as far as the show manages to stay afloat at all then it’s almost entirely thanks to their efforts. All three give top-notch performances that alone almost make the show worth watching, and I kind of winced for them on their behalf that the end product wasn’t turning out nearly as well as they must have hoped when they originally signed up.

The direction is also fine if not exactly eye-catching and there are some interesting East London locations such as the disused shopping mall and the rundown council tower blocks that add a little spice to the on-screen visuals. Ultimately however the problems all come down to the lacklustre writing: while there’s a mildly interesting twist about the perpetrator toward the end, up until then the opening story has been a bunch of well-travelled clichés about the dangers of teenagers using online chat rooms that seems at least 15 years beyond its sell-by date. It really is quite fascinating just how behind the times, out of touch and contrived the script feels in this day and age of the likes of Broadchurch, Line of Duty, The Fall and Happy Valley, all of which helped redefine the genre and raise the bar well out of sight of this stale effort.

Chasing Shadows continues on ITV on Thursdays at 9pm and series 1 will be released on DVD on September 29 2014.

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