There are cop shows and there are cop shows. Line Of Duty is a one-of-a-kind cop show, according to ANDREW JOHNSTONE.
Capsule Comment: Police thriller Line Of Duty follows the work of AC-12, the anti-corruption unit of the East Midlands police force in old Blighty, and week after week we are treated to dense story lines that twist and turn like a Sunday afternoon on ‘shrooms, as Superintendent Ted Hastings and his team root out the ‘bad eggs’ perverting the course of justice from within. Okay, sometimes the series stretches the limits of credibility but never at the cost of its overall sense of authenticity. Long after the mounting piles of the deceased and disgraced are filed away in AC-12’s archives, this show will live on as a streaming staple and is sure to be as influential as it is popular. Thrilling and exciting, Line Of Duty is an absolute winner.
From the moment it hit the screen back in 2012, Line Of Duty has been star performer for the BBC, and it’s easy to see why. This show is explosive from the get-go and from seasons one through four the pace never lets up.
From the pen of wunderkind writer (and ex-RAF man) Jed Mercurio, Line Of Duty is a police thriller based around AC-12, the anti-corruption unit of the East Midlands police force. The premise is lifted directly from landmark 2002 Hong King film Internal Affairs (directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, remade in 2006 by Martin Scorsese as The Departed) and seasons one through three follow a groomed copper manipulating things from the inside for a nefarious criminal organisation, an unresolved story arc that is still ongoing in the latest season.
DI Matthew ‘Dot’ Cotton (Craig Parkinson) – nicknamed after an iconic character from Coronation Street – was recruited into a shady criminal organisation as a kid and later joined the police as per instructions, rising up through the ranks. He provides information back to his masters, destroys evidence and makes the appropriate payoffs. It’s a delicate and dangerous business but his triumphant recruitment into AC-12 means he now has the ability to manipulate the system as never before. Watching Dot undermine his colleagues is narrative gold and makes for riveting TV. As for the man himself, he is beautifully written as both tragic and sinister and later, as his life is revealed in more detail, pitiful.
DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) is a whistle blower, a former specialist anti-terrorist copper who refused to keep his silence on a mission gone wrong and found himself ostracised. AC-12 offered him a new start. Like the man who recruited him (Ted Hastings) he is absolute in his pursuit of justice, but unlike Hastings he is prepared to push the envelope to get the evidence he needs to prove his case. Steve is all white-hot intensity on a humid summer’s day.
Police Superintendant Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) is probably the surprise package of the series, a square portrait of integrity whose virtuous world-view is almost a moral crusade. For Hastings’ victimised women are ‘poor wee girls’ and the men that hurt them are ‘now you listen to me fella!’ Hastings is as solid as solid can be and his manner is one of those oddly eccentric methods that help make this series as special as it is.
“I can’t be seen alone with a pretty young lassie like her,” he tells DS Arnott after he turns down an invitation for a drink at the pub from DS Kate Fleming, who is putting herself forward for a promotion. This is mostly mistaken for gender bias and is often used against him. Otherwise, Dunbar’s lines are an endless seam of gold and with each episode comes the expectation of some new fantastical Hastingsism to mull over.
In season one, Detective Inspector Tong Gates (Lennie James) is black and Birmingham’s most successful detective, or as Hastings is thinking: too successful.
Hastings: “No one is that successful.”
Gates: “If you are black you have to work twice as hard as the next man.”
Hastings: “I am a Catholic from Northern Ireland so don’t you go telling me about being black. No one’s blacker than me and I got where I am the right way.”
DS Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure – This Is England and Broadchurch) is the team’s undercover operative/specialist whose job it is to get close to suspects and observe them closely, feeding necessary information back to AC-12. Ambitious and career-focused (her drive has cost her a marriage and relationship with her son), her steady and thoughtful manner is the perfect foil for Steve Arnott’s more aggressive headlong tendencies.
Her turn hunting down Dot with a high powered rifle at the end of season three is as intense as it is it outlandish, and might just be a classic in the making, like something right out of The Professionals (1977-83) with a splash of Get Carter (1971) for that extra bit of madness. But that’s Line Of Duty for you. It stretches the limits of credibility (like when Steve Arnott is beaten with a baseball bat in season four and is thrown down three flights of stairs, and is back to work a couple of days later, albeit in a wheelchair) but never seems to lose its authenticity. It certainly makes the East Midlands look a lot more exciting than it probably is.
To say that AC-12 is not well regarded by their colleagues is an understatement. Viewed with suspicion and treated with callous mistrust these coppers are to the general force as the Stasi was to the people of East Germany – an all-pervasive system of spying and authoritarian overreach that undermines the ability of the force to properly conduct its business. Of course, Ted Hastings argues the point quite differently: “There’s a line. It’s called right and wrong and I know on which side my duty lies.”
While AC-12’s main objective is ensuring that police conduct is above board and beyond reproach as leads are followed up, so are stones overturned and all kinds of cellar-dwelling shenanigans exposed, paedophile rings and the like included (season three is mostly a critical analysis of a real life paedophile investigation, Operation Yewtree) and week after week we are treated to dense storylines that twist and turn like a Sunday afternoon on ‘shrooms, and not an episode goes by without your expectations being turned inside out and upside down.
While Line Of Duty is a thoroughly contemporary police thriller that pays due homage to the BBC’s social mandate (gender parity and multiculturalism) it also pays fair reverence to what has gone before. Classic police shows like The Professionals and The Sweeney are often referenced, both in style and tone. Mercurio really knows his stuff and it’s this kind of loving craftsmanship that helps make Line Of Duty as good as it is.
One of show’s great strengths is this attention to detail. Every character is richly coloured, making it hard not to become emotionally invested in the proceedings. These are desperate people trying to stay ahead of events spiralling out of their control, good and bad guys both, and as for those bad guys – they are never quite as black and white as many shows would paint them.
It is never clear if disgraced detective DI Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes – seasons two and three) is guilty of the crimes AC-12 has nailed her for, and while we are on that subject, what a superbly drawn character this woman is. Cue the scene when she has had about all she can take of her neighbour’s loud music, and hefting a wine bottle, proceeds to haul said neighbour into line with a nicely placed blow to the head before adjusting the volume.
Is this the action of a corrupt officer, or that of a person under duress? She is all shades of grey and brilliant with it, and as for her final scene, well my-oh-my, what a dazzling piece of television that is.
As for the leader of an armed police unit, the deeply wounded Danny Waldron (Daniel Mays – season three), he is as much a victim as the perpetrator, a case that could also be made for Dot Cotton, though Danny’s crimes turn out to be understandable, whereas Dot eschews each and every redemptive possibility out of fear and a misguided sense of loyalty to the wrong people. Season four’s DCI Roz Huntley (Thandie Newton – Westworld) however, may just be the best villain yet.
A manipulator extraordinaire, she is misguided in her judgements and seriously unhinged with it (but gets away with it thanks to her sexually smitten senior whose own questionable integrity is another swelling pile of steaming shit) and her calculating wit is turning out to be a swamp for everyone who dares venture there, including Hastings and Co. Even season one’s bent detective Tony Gates is worthy of some empathy, but it could be that there is nothing redemptive about Roz in any way at all. Or is there? One can never tell with this series, and this is a rare and wonderful thing. As for season four, okay, I have a few quibbles with some of the scripting, but damned shame it was over so quickly. A sly hint about Ted Hastings was also dropped at the last moment… or was it? I guess we will have to wait and see.
Line Of Duty is sharp, subversive, bonkers and action-packed and if not for some incredulous narrative leaps, it is almost perfect. Long after the records of the deceased and disgraced are filed away in AC-12’s archives will this show continue on as a streaming staple and is sure to be as influential as it is popular.
* Line Of Duty screens on Netflix in New Zealand.
* The Internet and ‘TV on Demand’ has revolutionised the way we watch TV shows. No longer beholden to television networks and their programming whims and scheduling, we can watch back-to-back episodes of new and old shows to our heart’s content without those annoying advertisements interrupting the narrative flow. TV viewing has suddenly become more accessible, democratic and a hell of a lot more fun. ANDREW JOHNSTONE scours the available channels and finds the best of the best, so you don’t have to.