The BBC Get It Right Again

Ahoy there, mateys!

Pontius here with the latest pirated pickings, palpably plundered for your pleasure.

The BBC have a long history of turning out quality content that is notably different in form from their American counterparts. Premium cable companies in the US have developed a formula of 10 or 12 part maxi-series (try Homeland or The Killing) with a single arc. It doesn’t matter how strong the storytelling is, there are always lulls in the action as red herrings are displayed and meandering side plots explored.

The BBC remains remarkably unshackled by the commercial impetuses  of US TV. The BBC does not carry advertising. The BBC does not rely on subscribers to fund programming. Foreign distribution and DVD sales are still part of the business model, but they seem to be less affected by the number of episodes in a season.

The current case in point is a remarkable mini-series which just finished its run in the UK over five consecutive weeks. Line Of Duty is the best TV show you probably won’t see this year. While other British cop dramas tend to be small town variations on Miss Marple, Line Of Duty takes its inspiration from American hard-boiled fiction.

Lennie James, Craig Parkinson and Neil Morrissey in Line Of Duty

At the start of the show, Detective Chief Inspector Tony Gates (Lennie James) is given the prestigious Officer of the Year award. He leads a tough squad of experienced officers and maintains consistently high closure rates for his cases. Suspiciously high, even, as he comes under investigation by the anti-corruption unit AC12 who believe he may be artificially inflating his stats. It’s a wonderfully modern accusation where corrupt cops are the ones who seem to be too good at their jobs rather than the bribe-taking, blind eye-turning police of the Serpico era.

Going up against Gates is the fresh-faced, pure-hearted Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott (Martin Compston). Arnott wants to believe Gates in innocent. He wants to be solving real crimes, not just chasing other cops for doing their jobs. Arnott carries his own baggage after being shunned by his peers for refusing to collude in a lie.

In addition to these two antagonists we have a classic femme fatale, a mole on Gates’ team, a feral child criminal, a scary voice on the phone and more. The performances are uniformly strong with special props to Adrian Dunbar as the copper in charge of AC12 and the luminous Gina McKee as a potentially shady businesswoman.

Lennie James, Martin Compston and Vicky McClure in Line Of Duty

Each of the five hour-long episodes ramps up the tension as character weaknesses are revealed and exploited. Writer/producer Jed Mercurio has abandoned the British police template which has produced pedestrian TV staples from Z-Cars to The Bill in favour of an all together more American approach. Reference points for this terrific series include HBO’s Best-TV-Show-Of-All-Time™, The Wire and the novels of James Ellroy, particularly The L.A. Quartet.

Line Of Duty is blacker and bloodier than your average TV drama. It’s not for the squeamish and it’s not for those who like their packages tied up neatly with ribbon. Line Of Duty is harsh and cynical and it deserves its place alongside those other excellent BBC three word wonders, Edge Of Darkness and State Of Play. That being the case, it’ll probably turn up in a sanitized Hollywood version at some point in the future – ironic given that all its nasty noir influences are distinctly American to begin with. Before that happens, track down the original and enjoy the best that TV has to offer, paid for by the British taxpayer for your enjoyment.

Let me know when you find it and we can compare notes.

About the Author
For years, Pontius was a model citizen generously overpaying for TV companies to show him ads between reruns for shows he never liked. But then, like Walter White, he just broke bad. These days Pontius Pirate is beholden to no man's TV schedule. He sails the content seas under the skull and crossbones committing daily acts of piracy. In this version of 'drag the net,' the names have been changed to protect the guilty.