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.
It would be delightful if it were possible to do a one word review of Unforgettable as being “Forgettable”, but that would be both glib and unfair. Instead, it’s a perfectly proficient police procedural just like dozens of others, okay to spend an hour with if there’s nothing better on TV but not anything you’re going to get particularly attached to.
Its USP (unique selling point) is that the main character Carrie Wells (played by Without a Trace alum Poppy Montgomery) has perfect memory recall. As a basic premise that’s fine (it also provided the initial seed for the rather good legal comedy-drama Suits for example), although when they stretch this into the ability to remember anything and everything that Carrie might ever have had in her field of vision – even subliminally – the ability seems less credible than comic book superhero, and an excuse to do memory ‘walkthroughs’ akin to the now-clichéd CSI flashback sequences. Carrie also has some predictable private tragedies to contend with: her sister was murdered when they were kids; her mother is – irony of obvious ironies – suffering from Alzheimers and hardly remembers her anymore.
The series has two main problems, the first being what to do with this total recall ability once you’ve gone through the two or three obvious ‘memory’-inspired plot lines. The second is what to do with the rest of the cast while they sit around waiting for Carrie’s supermemory to kick in. This last problem is exacerbated by the fact that Carrie is also supercop – the one who knows best how to deal with the witnesses, who seizes upon the vital clue, who has the correct hunch. It leaves the rest of the team sitting around looking thoroughly superfluous, there merely to feed Carrie lines and evidence so the plot can move on. That’s a shame and waste of a potentially good line up that includes Kevin Rankin, Michael Gaston and Daya Vaidya; Dylan Walsh fares slightly better as her boss and former boyfriend, but not by much.
Ultimately there’s nothing here that fatally wounds the program, except the cases themselves – which are frankly rather dull, being of little intrinsic interest and having no great ‘twist’ to them to make them worth thinking too hard over. That means that when it comes down to it, the correct one-word glib review for Unforgettable turns out to be simply “unremarkable.”
Currently airing on Sky Living on Tuesdays at 9pm.
Do we really need yet another crime/police show? Not really, but at least this series revolves around two strong and interesting female characters for a welcome change. Angie Harmon is a revelation as a tough blue collar Boston detective very far removed from her glossy Law and Order days, while it’s nice to see Sasha Alexander (an NCIS regular for the first two seasons) back in business as a quirky Medical Examiner. The show gives a nice, everyday representation of two woman who happen to be genuine friends, with a nice touch making the young ‘hunky’ male stars the ones to throw up in autopsy or else be the tied-up ‘damsels’ in distress. This short first season has perhaps felt under too much pressure to delve into the two leads’ backstories with cases that personally impact them and reveal hidden secrets or buried terrors, and hopefully this will be remedied in later runs. It’s been at its best with some out-of-the-norm scenarios such as a murder during the Boston Marathon leading to an improvised investigation on the run so to speak, or a siege in police headquarters that provided the season one finale, that’s just finished airing on Alibi.
Part of a week of one-para reviews, designed to (a) put the “Short” back into Taking the Short View; (b) catch up on some past programmes I should have reviewed ages ago; and (c) get my post count back up!