The new Line Of Duty? It’s criminal! Most critics thrilled at the show’s return. So why were so many viewers left baffled by an incomprehensible plot, hopeless miscasting and (whisper it) even nodding off, asks CHRISTOPHER STEVENS
Am I the only one? After weeks of anticipation, awaiting the return of television’s most intelligent and heart-stopping thriller, I sat through Line Of Duty (BBC1) on Sunday night with a mixture of frustration and bemused disappointment.
A series that once dared to be as witty as it was ingenious — violent, emotional, tense and boisterous in equal measure — was now plain unbelievable. Worse than that, it was incomprehensible. Even worse than that, parts of it were flat-out boring.
Line Of Duty is renowned for opening episodes that deliver pulsating shocks, with ambitious set-piece scenes and dramatic deaths. That just didn’t happen on Sunday. Not only were there no explosive surprises, but writer Jed Mercurio failed even to light the fuse.
Much of the time I was left scratching my head over echoes from events years ago, offered without explanation or context. This show is renowned for its sleight of hand and clever misdirection — which is very different from simply baffling the viewer with obscure references.
The story veered from the low-key to the miserable. Depression, prescription drugs, ugly break-ups and petty office politics make a dreary mix.
Line of Duty season six. Pictured: DI Kate Fleming (Vicky Mcclure), left, and DCI Joanne Davidson (Kelly MacDonald), centre
Most uncomfortable of all was the trademark police interview — the flint-edged detective quizzing a sad and puzzled man with Down’s syndrome about a crime he could not possibly have committed.
The script has become a swamp of acronyms, like wading through cold alphabet soup.
When Line Of Duty launched in 2012, the injections of jargon, spelled out by initials, carried a frisson of excitement. Once it was revealed that OCG stood for organised crime group and SFC was strategic firearms commander, viewers felt like insiders, initiated into a dangerous world.
But the opening five minutes this time were worse than parody. ‘Intel has graded the info 1A on the matrix,’ barked one character, a copper identified only as ‘Five-Three’, with a tip-off from a CHIS [Covert Human Intelligence Source]. ‘Mike India two zero, state five,’ snapped another.
As the MIT (murder investigation team) leapt into a convoy of black vehicles, following ‘the Super’s conflab with the directed surveillance authority’, the show turned into a parody of itself.
Picture shows DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) and, Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), centre
I half-wondered if this was some elaborate spoof for Comic Relief, and expected Lenny Henry in body armour to stride into the station barking three-letter commands into the walkie-talkie on his chest — ‘OMG! FFS! WTF!’ (Switch on your subtitles and you might discover that this stands for, ‘On My Go-ahead! Forward Firearms Squad! Wholesale Translation Function!’)
At least Sir Len, at 6 ft 2 in, could play a copper with the traditional build. If Line Of Duty is to be believed, the thin blue line now consists mostly of women so petite, they’re shorter than their extendable truncheons.
Anneika Rose plays PC Farida Jatri, who looks about 13.
She’s the vengeful ex-girlfriend of a much senior but barely taller officer, DCI Jo Davidson — actress Kelly Macdonald, who was excellent as a gangster’s abused wife in Boardwalk Empire but who, on the evidence of the first hour, is miscast as a career copper.
Macdonald looks hesitant and lost in uniform. She has the manner of a shy primary school teacher. We’re meant to accept she’s an instinctive crime-buster, able to spot an armed robbery in progress within a split-second, just because the getaway van is badly parked. I struggle to believe she would cope as a lollipop lady.
That’s a let-down, because Line Of Duty has a first-rate record with credible, compelling female characters. Vicky McClure as DI Kate Fleming continues to carry off her role with deadpan ambiguity. Has she really quit the anti- corruption unit to go back to ordinary policing? Is she still loyal to her old boss, Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), but working undercover? Or is she, as many fans suspect, the ultimate traitor, relaying secrets to the criminal gang?
For me, like many viewers, the series was at its peak when Keeley Hawes played the devious DI Lindsay Denton. Throughout the second and third seasons, we wondered constantly whether she was a woman misjudged, or rotten to the core.
She insisted the whole world was against her and, at times, she convinced everyone — including randy DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston).
He hunts coppers with dirty secrets but appears intent on sleeping with half the women on the force. Now there’s a conflict of interest.
At the show’s centre is Superintendent Hastings, the one character who would not look out of place in the long-ago cop shops of Z Cars or Softly, Softly.
Line Of Duty has a first-rate record with credible, compelling female characters
Actor Dunbar has imbued Ted with depth by giving him the swagger of a working-class Northern Irishman. The Super’s pet slang has bestowed catchphrases on the show — ‘Mother of God! Now we’re sucking diesel. The letter of the law, fella!’ But Ted barely got a look-in on Sunday night.
In a couple of scenes, he appeared a broken man, at first lacking the courage to order an investigation and then unable to withstand Arnott’s insistence. Not so long ago, he’d have sent his presumptuous junior fleeing from the office with one whiskey-saturated roar.
Then he went whinging to his own boss that she no longer invited him to meetings. When she told him to hold his tongue, he skulked off like a whipped cur.
Hastings has always seemed proud — pig-headed, too eager to trust his instincts when they have frequently proved wrong — but never weak.
Suddenly, he’s cringeing like Uriah Heep. It makes no sense — and when characters stop making sense, viewers stop caring.
None of this would matter much if Line Of Duty were ordinary primetime fare.
We have just sat through four weeks of the ludicrous Bloodlands with James Nesbitt, for example, and nobody feels particularly betrayed by its nonsensical plot or daft ending. Bloodlands was simply insignificant.
But Line Of Duty is different. Its creator, Mercurio, talks of it on Radio 4 and BBC Two as a serious indictment of endemic police corruption. Agog viewers comb every scene for clues like forensics officers searching for strands of DNA.
For everyone who, like me, enjoys their telly in deadly earnest, any sign of collapse in Line Of Duty is worrying.
And there are a lot of us: 9.6 million people tuned in on Sunday night. We love the show — there’s a great deal riding on this.
It is a couple of years since fans’ obsessive loyalty to Game Of Thrones was repaid with a dire final season. Characters became unrecognisable, storylines fell apart and everyone felt cheated.
Mother of Dragons, fella, no one wants that to happen again.
baffled? WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Line Of Duty has a reputation for leaving viewers stunned and baffled, with shock twists and sudden deaths.
It is possible that Sunday’s lacklustre opener was designed to lull us into a false sense of complacence.
If Ted Hastings is just biding his time before launching his strike, if Kate Fleming is a double agent working in plain sight, if newcomer Jo Davidson is going to lead us to the criminal top copper known as ‘H’, this could yet turn out to be a brilliant season — worthy of all those that have gone before.
But that’s not much use if you haven’t got a clue what’s going on.
And Sunday night’s starter was decidedly short on explanations.
For those still working out what they watched, here’s what AC-12 might call ‘B-GLOD’ — the Bluffer’s Guide to Line Of Duty.
WHY IS STEVE POPPING PILLS?
In Series four, our man in the fancy waistcoat had a run-in with a villain in a balaclava who was probably an undercover officer himself.
Steve was thrown over a banister in an office block and fell three flights, landing on his back.
With his spine fractured, it seemed unlikely, at first, that he would ever walk again. But after several episodes in a wheelchair he made an almost full recovery.
It does seem, though, that his injuries have left him in chronic pain, and perhaps with an addiction to opiate-based painkillers. In the new episode we saw him touring the local pharmacies, buying maximum-strength drugs over the counter and later downing them by the handful.
WHY IS TERRY BOYLE’S FRIDGE IMPORTANT?
Tommy Jessop plays Terry, a man with Down’s syndrome who is ruthlessly exploited by the criminals.
DCI Davidson’s squad arrested him on suspicion of the assassination of a journalist, Gail Vella, though it seems obvious that Terry is not capable of carrying out such a crime.
We first met Terry in the first series, in 2012, though you would be forgiven for not recognising him. He was played by a different actor, Elliott Rosen.
He’s a significant character because the gang used his fridge to store the dismembered body of property developer Jackie Laverty (Gina McKee).
In Sunday night’s episode, Ted Hastings referred to Terry as a ‘local oddball’, a dismissive term that provoked an angry reaction from disability campaigners yesterday.
Writer Mercurio defended the language, saying it was a reference to the 1999 murder of TV presenter Jill Dando.
Police arrested Barry George, who was wrongly imprisoned for the killing. He later said his only crime was to be the ‘local oddball’.
WHY IS TED DOWN IN THE DUMPS?
The Super was briefly suspended from duty in the last series, with questions over his behaviour as a young officer in Northern Ireland, as well as the puzzle about why he should destroy a perfectly good laptop (he says he was ashamed of himself for watching porn — ‘nothing extreme’).
Coincidence or not, we know that the police mole was feeding information to the criminals from a computer.
To make matters worse, Ted’s estranged wife was tortured by an undercover police officer, and he is on the verge of bankruptcy after a disastrous investment — so skint that he could hardly pay the bill at the cheap hotel where he bedded down. And his colleague, police lawyer Gill Biggeloe (Polly Walker), was in the pay of the crooks.
In short, Ted doesn’t have much to smile about.
IS KATE STILL PART OF AC-12?
We know she’s a brilliant spy who has infiltrated other police teams on multiple occasions. This time, she insists she has quit AC-12 — but she would say that, wouldn’t she?
Former partner DS Arnott clearly believes she is no longer working for anti-corruption, which is why he is trying to recruit her back. But as to her real status, well, that would be YGIA-GAA (Your Guess Is As Good As Anybody’s).
THAT ROBBERY . . . WHAT WAS GOING ON?
DCI Davidson claimed to detect a hold-up in progress at a betting shop, based on a fleeting glimpse of a getaway vehicle. She diverted a police swoop on a murder suspect, claiming that lives could be at risk from the gunmen.
In the ensuing chaos, one of the robbers was shot. Leave aside the question of whether anyone has held up a betting shop since 1986 — most of the old-school ‘blaggers’ are in nursing homes these days.
What we need to know is whether Davidson staged the robbery as a diversion to give the murder suspect time to switch places with Terry Boyle and escape.
One alternative explanation is that another senior officer, perhaps Davidson’s weedy superintendent, set it up, knowing his DCI would spot the van and take action.
ARE THOSE ACRONYMS THE REAL DEAL?
The official Home Office Twitter account confirmed yesterday that CHIS is a genuine police abbreviation: ‘For those who watched Line Of Duty last night,’ it said, ‘CHIS stands for covert human intelligence source. The work of these undercover agents is vital in safeguarding victims from serious crimes including terrorism.’
Back in the days of The Sweeney, they were known as informants, or ‘narks’, a politically incorrect term now regarded as offensive to anyone who self-identifies as a CHIS.
ARE PEOPLE TAKING IT A BIT TOO SERIOUSLY?
You might say that. Ten minutes into the episode, several viewers who apparently believed they were still watching Top Gear took to Twitter to complain that one of the cars in the police convoy was being played by two different BMWs — the first a saloon with a black radiator grille, the second with chrome trim.
We can only hope lockdown will be over soon and these people can get back to trainspotting.
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