In March, newspapers and websites alike were already falling over themselves to award Line of Duty with the accolade of TV drama of the year. It is a finely crafted show, of that there is no doubt (even if there was gratuitous and confusing plot dumping in the final episode), but the grounds on which it is praised are somewhat awry. The creator, Jed Mercurio, is somewhat culpable of this, as in an interview with The Guardian he described the genesis of his work:
“I got interested in writing about police corruption, it was a different angle, a police version of Bodies: very grown-up, it had mature themes, an antithesis of the escapist cop show. I am a social realist writer. There were sufficient parallels with the NHS I could write about.”
Mercurio may see himself as a social realist writer, but Line of Duty is at its most powerful when it is consciously fantastical, and I don’t think this is any coincidence.
It must be conceded right off the bat that Mercurio has done an excellent job at translating a previously ignored aspect of police life – anti-corruption and the bureaucratic culture of the police post-New Labour – onto the screen, but that is largely the extent to which his ‘social realism’ delves. There is a curious absence of the social, and that is what I understand in the phrase ‘social realism’ – examining characters based upon their socioeconomic circumstances. To some extent Mercurio’s words work against him, because the show works at its best when it is further from such an ideal of realism.
The leading players on the blue side of the line are generally rendered quite well, and without pandering to types. They are conflicted, and frequently misguided when they pursue what they believe to be true justice. So far, so good. However, the series changes tone when it attempts to address the world outside the police station. The criminal underworld in the series is a shadowy realm whose motivations are never brought forward – it is no coincidence that Gates’ house is broken into by masked intruders in series 1, and that the ambush is perpetrated by all-black wearing motorcyclists in series 2.
This does more than perpetuate narrative tension, as it shows the crime originating from the underclass as a strike from the shadows, one which draws power because it is so unexpected and unexplainable, not because the criminal organisations are accountable to any sort of socioeconomic production. Crime is inevitable, it has no genesis. This is quite unusual, given that Mercurio is so careful to illustrate how the police officers are pressured by factors outside their work to act in the way that they do.
There is, of course, the fact that as a relatively low-budget BBC production, there is only so much time and energy to invest in drawing up the type of finely woven tapestry seen in a series like The Wire. Nevertheless, there are some sinister elements of Line of Duty’s limitations, which suggest there is intent behind the caricaturisation of crime. Namely, crime is seen as one part of a wider umbrella of annoyances in middle-class life, like noisy neighbours, or not being able to afford school fees. The interview with the child Ryan in series 1 does a good job at humanising him, but the impact of his early appearances puts him in close proximity with the demon-child Damien from The Omen, raising the implied question: what if this was your child?
You can see this in the series 2 sub-plot of Lindsay Denton and her noisy neighbour – the woman’s only purpose in the story is, quite literally, to generate noise. She has no side of the story, meaning that her disturbance of Lindsay is put on a level with the corruption the latter is dealing with. Think back to the robber in series 1 as well, who is accompanied by a motif of loud techno music which acts like a huge flashing banner, shouting “HERE! HERE! THE CRIME IS HERE! ISN’T HE A NAUGHTY BOY?”.
Crime and loud noises are combined as part of a general background buzz with other annoyances like paperwork. Sometimes moving away from realism really fits the show, as with the absence of geographical specificity which I’ll refer to later, but at other times it makes the show look refracted through a prism. Namely, that society, its constituents and their motivations are not drawn in an inquisitive manner but according to a ‘worst case scenario’ program, simply rehashing what someone may think or worry that the world outside their immediate view is like, instead of depicting it with a sense of investigation. There is less of a feeling that Mercurio has uncovered hidden elements in our society that we need to have brought to our attention, but that our insecurities are, in effect, being pandered to. Sometimes this is a useful narrative tactic, when Line of Duty takes on a decidedly Gothic flavour, drawing on several tropes of that particular genre.
There’s no peace in your own home. Jackie Laverty thought she had it in the first series, before her home was broken into and she was brutally murdered. The two police officers who supervise Denton during her incarceration in series 2 are Gothic fantasies in two ways: one, in their Kafkaesque rigour to a completely banal and emotionless bureaucracy, and two, because they are effectively doubles of one another. They are not designed to be realistic portrayals of police who were tempted on the wrong side of the thin blue line; their distinguishing feature is that they are always presented as a pair, like the eerie twins from The Shining, constantly intimidating the protagonist by outnumbering them.
Such a trope also promotes another Gothic idea: disrupting humanist belief that each human being is fundamentally different by giving two figures that look and behave exactly the same. Likewise, Tommy Hunter is an angry Scotsman – his only defining characteristic is his Scottishness, which makes him louder and brasher, furthering the portrayal of crime as a noise, something which constantly stampedes upon people’s attempts to get on with their lives, instead of something that is accountable to social conditions. A real student of theory could delve here into the effect of having this Scottishness make him part of the general ‘othering’ of the criminal world within the show, but I don’t think it needs pushing that far – simply recognising the stereotypical traits of the character is sufficient.
The whole estate sub-plot of series 1 is a sequence of ever-descending negatives, where humanity is completely absent: Sarah Hughes in The Guardian describes the overall feel as ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ and she’s certainly on to something. The estate is much more fictionalised than the police station. The estate is a place where crime and evil deeds obviously ensue, whereas the police station at least has the benefit of having each and every motivation and deed interrogated ruthlessly by the programme. Although Fleming’s undercover work in series 1 was delicately done (and brilliantly subverted in series 2 when Denton called her out on it straight away), Dot Cottan has no such delicacies in his undercover role in AC-12. I understand that Line of Duty has been commissioned for two further series and thus it is perhaps inevitable that it will be explored further, but at the moment Cottan is a ‘Keyser Soze’ figure, a mythical menace within the police’s grasp, one who looks low on the pecking order both in the underworld and the police service but one whose hands remain remarkably clean.
Indeed, given the gaps series 2 left, I hope it will be the intertwining of police and criminals which forms the backbone of the next series at least. Taking the first series on their own terms, however, there was very little reference as to why Cottan, the two women in the prison, and the police behind the ambush acted in the way that they did. The fact that they show no remorse is telling; these are not conscience-driven characters in the way that the main characters are, they are devils, who commit evil deeds because that is what they are built for. It’s a circular logic; they’re evil because they’re evil. Again, this is odd when the main characters wrestle with a more 3-dimensional picture of what exactly good and evil mean in modern policing.
Sometimes this fluctuation between realism and Gothic benefits the show: they have been unable to specify where the show is set due to changing filming locations, but this has quite a neat effect of murkying the show’s palette even further – the city in which the show is set does not have a history of particular socioeconomic policy directed to it – it’s a city woven out of nightmares, where each character is trapped resolutely within their unhappiness and surrounded by demons. Line of Duty is weaker when it perpetuates extremely negative reports of society without delving enough beneath to surface to justify the label of ‘social realism’.
I have to ask for feedback on this one; Line of Duty is the only Jed Mercurio series I’ve watched. Anyone who’s watched his other stuff like Bodies and Cardiac Arrest, please leave a comment, I’d like to know how the two compare – does he seem more comfortable writing about the NHS, which he used to work in? Is there the same sense of suspended investigation? Do get in touch.