The normal British TV depiction of police work goes something like this: the hero DI or DCI and his trusty sidekick, working in a calm and well-ordered detective unit, badger witnesses and arrest the wrong person a third of the way through the program before finally running down the culprit. Despite constantly irritating senior leadership, Our Hero plods on, content in his position and with no thought to anything (other than having a pint or listening to opera) except solving the latest murder. If Internal Affairs appears at all, it’s as some annoying git who yaps at Our Hero’s heels and makes his pursuit of truth and justice more arduous than normal, before the IA git is finally shown the door.
But what if the IA git was the good guy? What if the hero detective was a showboating philanderer? And what if the entire system of British policing was portrayed as being rife with internecine squabbling, backbiting, fear and loathing, naked ambition, self-serving cover-ups, bureaucratic make-work and a complete inability to protect and serve the public? What would that show be like?
Line of Duty is what it would be like.
DS Steve Arnott of the Metropolitan Police (Martin Compston: The Damned United, Monarch of the Glen) refuses to participate in the cover-up of a botched anti-terrorist operation and ends up being exiled to the Met’s AC-12 anti-corruption unit. His new supervisor assigns him to investigate DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James: Jericho, The Walking Dead), the hotshot leader of a group of detectives who have racked up the best case-closure numbers in the Met for three years running. The suspicion: Gates is cooking the books with a practice called “laddering,” which involves loading an inflated number of charges onto a single case.
Arnott first sees Gates during a ceremony in which Gates receives an Officer of the Year award. Arnott’s initial take is that Gates is just a good detective, and maybe AC-12 ought to be “proper coppers” and chase down real villains. His boss – who seems to have it in for Gates – cajoles Arnott into the case, and soon the young sergeant jumps in with both feet.
As it turns out, Gates isn’t the second coming of Inspector Morse. The laddering charges are quite true. In addition to being arrogant and slippery around the edges, Gates engages in constant not-quite-illegal manipulations of the system in order to score all the best (i.e. easily solvable) cases for his TO-20 team. On top of it all, family-man Gates is carrying on a hot affair with former flame/rich businesswoman Jackie Laverty (Gina McKee: The Borgias, In the Loop), who may be into some shady business. When Laverty’s accountant turns up dead, Gates suddenly finds himself in the middle of more than he can handle.
Line of Duty resists handing us easy “good guys” and “bad guys.” Arnott has the face of a choirboy and the disapproving pucker of your maiden Aunt Matilda, offends nearly everyone he meets and has an enormous chip on his shoulder, yet is brave in the face of regular provocation and has a politically inconvenient attachment to the truth. In addition to being a showboat and cheat, Gates lies fluently to nearly everyone; however, he’s also a warm, loving father to two adorable daughters, treats his wife well (other than the affair) and is a dedicated cop (he bolts from breakfast with his lover to break up a mugging). He’s not a bad cop who set out to be bad; he’s a formerly good cop who made a bad decision, then another to try to right the first, and so on until he can’t find his way out.
The Arnott-vs.-Gates cage fight takes place in an environment that would turn anyone to the dark side. The detective bureau housing TO-20 is a warren of tribal feuds, backbiting, grasping for advancement and internecine sabotage, ineffectually presided over by a political weasel of a Chief Superintendant (Paul Higgins). The physical space itself is claustrophobia-inducing and convincingly cluttered with the litter of bureaucratic policing. The bobbies on the street are whipsawed by the ever-changing priorities and programs thrown off by their deskbound superiors, bound by conflicting and inflexible regulations, and largely unable to control the hoods and feral children that infest the local council estate (in U.S. terms, “the projects”). Anti-terrorism is the shiny toy, the glare from which covers up personal agendas, deadly blunders and – in Gates’ case – a growing number of bad deeds. This swamp stays true to itself all the way through the near-heartbreaking coda. It’s not for nothing that the Met wouldn’t cooperate with BBC Drama Productions, which instead turned for technical advice to retired cops and serving police working on the down-low.
Line of Duty premiered in Britain in June 2012 and was BBC Two’s most successful drama series in ten years. It’s been nominated for several awards, and the sequel is due in late 2013.
If all this sounds like The Shield or The Wire with English accents, you’re in the right back alley. It’s anything but the Masterpiece Mystery experience. Inspector Lynley, it ain’t; what it is, is a tour through a ruined landscape of British law enforcement painted in many shades of dark gray, featuring flawed, interesting characters at war with themselves, each other and the system. All five episodes are available on Hulu.
Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer who has watched far more British crime shows than is good for him. However, while his 2012 debut international thriller Doha 12 has scenes in Tel Aviv, Beirut, Amsterdam, Modena, Paris, Burbank, Philadelphia and New York City, it doesn’t visit Britain. He tweets (@lcharnes) about scuba diving, shipwrecks and archaeology, among other things.