The Lens S1 (All 4) [2014]

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the-lensIt’s only natural that we should have preconceived ideas about what a drama from Sweden, Denmark, Norway or Iceland should be like; or equally, a production from France, Germany, Italy, Australia or even from Britain or the US. For sure, those expectations may very well end up being confounded or overturned, but we generally still have a certain sense of what’s coming.

I have to confess that this was very much not the case when it came to what to expect of crime thrillers from the Czech Republic, and as a result I was intrigued by the prospect of The Lens (original title Clona), the story of wannabe filmmaker Roman (a likeable turn from Krystof Hádek) who fails to win a place at film school and instead grudgingly follows his father into working as a police traffic officer. When his father is a victim of a hit-and-run attack, Roman joins a small elite band of detectives as their photographer, cameraman and video forensics officer.

On the basis of this seven-part series, Czech drama reminds me most strongly of the 1970s ITV series The Sweeney in that it’s shot largely on location on the streets of Prague in a realistic, no-nonsense fashion; the prevalence of chain-smoking characters might also contribute to this feeling. There’s little in the way of pretentious attention-seeking styling that is so often the case in modern cop shows, although director Tomás Rehorek does tend to indulge in some arty slow motion shots here and there, and overuses the technique of slowly panning to one side and using a foreground object to achieve a wipe transition to the next scene. Overall the production is satisfyingly modern and certainly made to international quality, and the first few episodes display some impressive, almost impressionistic fast-cut editing techniques that show it to be very much of the 21st century. In many ways the show as a whole has a timeless quality that is only slightly undermined by the use of an at-the-time modern soundtrack that has already started to sound dated even in the two to three years since the show was originally made.

The first three episodes progress nicely as we watch a fumbling Roman try to win the acceptance of his experienced, hard-bitten work colleagues while trying to complete basic police training at which he’s really not very good. At the same time he’s seeking to reassure his anxious mother that police work isn’t really at all dangerous – which is rather hard to do when he’s shot in the chest at close range twice in a single episode. It all adds to a nice sense of growth and continuity with an underlying quiet, dark humour that holds the interest and makes you want to see more.

Unfortunately this all changes in episode four, “Hell or High Water”. Even though the series is written by just one person (Marek Epstein), this instalment manages to feel as if it was scripted by someone who has never seen the show before and has no idea about the characters. The sub-plots regarding Roman’s development are largely dropped, and instead he’s mooning over a possible romance with fellow officer Nikola (Vica Kerekes) which gets to the point of bordering on harassment in the workplace. She is the only woman on a team of interchangeable identikit males, and her main job appears to be staring out of the window into middle-distance in a wistful and photogenic manner while for much of the episode Roman becomes just another police officer questioning witnesses. Meanwhile the ‘elite team’ that had won plaudits a week ago is now under threat of imminent risk of being shut down, and everyone’s sniping at each other.

The fifth episode, “Snitch”, is at least a bit of an improvement on that, but at the same time bafflingly banal. After they disrupt a drug smuggling operation, the team is targeted for revenge by an ex-cop turned crime lord called Dyml who is out for revenge meaning the team is the subject of threats, booby-traps and ambushes. Yet despite this clear and evident danger, the show as a whole falls flat and utterly fails to generate any sense of excitement or tension into the proceedings. It would be more thrilling instead to watch the team stuck in the office on a wet Wednesday afternoon catching up on their backlog of paperwork. Even the music comes over as being profoundly disinterested in what’s going on.

The penultimate episode “Hitchhikers” is superficial and thin, with the team’s investigation into series of killings of young people who were thumbing a ride on a busy road pretty much limited to an amateurish surveillance operation with the team taking it in turn to pose as hitchhikers. There’s no serious attempt to explore or explain the killer’s motivations and he just ends up being one of those murderers from 1960s and 1970s cop shows who kill people at random just because the story demands it.

Fortunately there’s a late return to form with the final episode, “Cameraman”, which remembers to foreground both Roman and the photography aspect that the series originally based itself on, including a memorable sequence in which the team jury-rigs a surveillance drone and flies it into a hideaway that they believe is being used by their ongoing adversary Dyml. The series’ ongoing storylines are all wrapped up in time for the final credits to a nicely satisfying degree, while still leaving enough of a hook to pick up in a new run of episodes – which it seems it didn’t get.

That’s a shame, because those first three episodes which see things from Roman’s newbie point of view are really rather decent. They’re not ground-shaking and certainly never going to change the way we see crime drama, but they’re enjoyable and different and absorbing enough to make you want to keep watching. It’s just unfortunate that the show doesn’t back itself to stick with its premise through to the end, and instead ends up devolving into something rather mediocre and underwhelming midway through before a late bounce at the finish. Perhaps there’s a reason why Channel 4 decided to put this on their All 4 streaming service under the ‘Walter Presents’ international drama label rather than expending valuable broadcast time on it.

Rating: ★ ★ 1/2

The Lens is available in the UK from the Channel 4 streaming service All 4 under the Walter Presents label.

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