This new BBC 2 “cop drama with a difference” is written by Jed Mercurio, who penned medical drama “Bodies”, which aired from 2004-2006; or so I’m reliably informed by Wikipedia, since I’d never actually heard of Mercurio until I decided to look up Line of Duty’s writer.
Mercurio apparently trained as a doctor before becoming a writer which helped him with the medical details required for Bodies. For Line of Duty, though, he had to meticulously research the inner workings of the police system, in order to create this drama about those who “police the police”.
In the opening episode, an anti-terrorist raid, led by DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) goes disastrously wrong, resulting in the death of an innocent man. At the ensuing inquiry, Arnott refuses to participate in the cover-up engineered by his superiors and as a result loses his place in Anti-Terrorism. He transfers to an anti-corruption unit AC-12, who are in the process of investigating DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James). Gates has just won Officer of the Year for the third year in a row, as a result of his suspiciously high crime figures. After initial scepticism, Arnott is pulled further into the case, with the help of undercover DC Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) who is working at the heart of Gates’ squad. As he delves deeper, Arnott begins to suspect that Gates is hiding a secret much bigger than any imagined by AC-12 and he aims to prove it…
It only takes a vague awareness of what’s going on in the papers to know that this drama is timely in the extreme. Stories of police corruption are rife in the media; the re-investigation of the Stephen Lawrence trial amid rumours of corruption, for example. Line of Duty is bound to split opinion because of its enagagment with touchy subjects, but a drama that doesn’t shy away from societal issues is always going to have an edge on those that keep the action within a hermetically sealed world.
It could be this consideration which gave rise to the setting of Line of Duty. It’s not named as any particular city (though filming took place in Birmingham); it’s a kind of Gotham City. It can act as anywhere . Lots of police and detective dramas are very characterized by place (Morse and Lewis to give two obvious examples) but Line of Duty breaks the bonds of setting, giving the drama a more universal feel.
As a moral story, it does clunk along a bit in places. The endless references to the constraints of police bureaucracy (usually played for laughs) become a little strained but it certainly stops you from missing the point of what the drama is trying to say.
However, Line of Duty is character driven as much as anything else. Compston’s Head Boy looks suit the role of Arnott perfectly and his stoicism gives the drama its neo-noir feel. We’ve yet to learn more of Vicky McClure’s character DC Fleming, after the twist of the first episode that she is in fact working undercover. I hope that the next episode gives us a little more of her story; if only to see more of McClure acting. I also love that it has Craig Parkinson as a member of Gates’ squad, who I last saw as the ennui-ful probation officer in Misfits.
The star of the show though is undeniably Lennie James as DCI Gates. A smooth and charismatic exterior hides a multi-faceted and all too humanly flawed character beneath. In Line of Duty, and more specifically in Gates' character, we see the human potential for (at times catastrophic) mistakes within any institution. The law, this drama says, is no bigger than the human sum of those who constitute it and it is all too fallible because of it.
The dark, moody colours of this drama, together with a plot pace that manages to keep you gripped for the whole hour, make for an intensely atmospheric television drama. I think Line of Duty potentially represents the lauded Scandinavian influence finally rubbing off on our own drama output, and it is certainly a refreshing new take on a time-worn genre.
(The first two episodes are currently on BBC iPlayer, and the series continues tomorrow at 9pm on BBC2)