Every now and then you find yourself admiring something for its purity, if not necessarily it’s beauty. Criminal: UK, is one quarter of the four country justice tour that Netflix have just released. Each 45 minute episode unfolds inside ‘The Box’ where a suspect is being interrogated. All we know is the elemental nature of the set up; on that side of the table, the guilty. On this side of the table, the detectives.
All directed by Jim Field Smith and all written by George Kay. Criminal: UK brings us into the room for three cases. ‘Edgar’, focuses on Doctor Edgar Fallon, played with glacial stillness by David Tennant. ‘Stacey’ cedes the floor to Hayley Atwell‘s cheerfully combative Stacey Doyle. ‘Jay’ puts Youssef Kerkour‘s Jay Muthassin in the hot seat. Ranged against them are hyper intense and newly promoted DCI Paul Ottager (Nicholas Pinnock), unit leader Detective Natalie Hobbs (Katherine Kelly), enthusiastic DC Hugo Duffy (Mark Stanley), his laconic mirror image DC Vanessa Warren (Rochenda Sandall), new arrival DC Kyle Petit (Shubham Saraf) and deceptively gentle academic Detective Tony Myerscough (Lee Ingleby). Each episode takes place in the final hour or so of the time the suspect can be held. None of them go where anyone in the room is expecting.
You get the first hint of that in ‘Edgar’. Tennant’s character has said nothing but ‘No Comment’ for 20 minutes or so when Ottager simply comes in, sits down and stares at him. In an instant, the tone in the room shifts, Edgar’s solicitor demanding that a note be made of Ottager’s behavior. It’s a little moment, and not one that leads to violence, but it does the vital work of dragging the tension in the set up out into the light. It also jars Edgar, gets him talking, and once he starts he never shuts up. Most importantly, and most quietly it informs us that there are things going on on both sides of the table.
Communication, both honest and false, is the heart of the show. The team are endlessly focused on getting their subjects to open up. The suspects are focused on not incriminating themselves. The romantic version of every plot here is a clash of wills, two Judoka locked together, waiting for one of them to make the stupid move so they can finish the fight. The dull, sodium orange and shitty coffee machine version is what the show is far more concerned with. Edgar going 23 hours without saying anything but ‘No comment’. Stacey barely going 23 seconds without saying something. Jay, and Kerkour is the least well known star here but WOW does he leave his mark, making it clear he knows everything they’ve got.
Until Edgar starts talking.
Until Stacey starts talking about the right thing.
Until Jay goes off script.
Every episode there’s a moment that another show would play as redemptive or high drama. Here it’s quiet and tense, the other cops leaning forward, frantically waiting in the observation room as the horror in each suspect finally bubbles to the surface. It’s never romantic. It’s never triumphant. People are still dead. But it’s all this group of essayed, almost minimalist detectives can get so they grab it with both hands. The genius of Kay’s scripts is that he shows us these people in a handful of instant coffee dust. Ottager the hard charger, Hobbs the ruthless future Chief Constable, the desperate to please Duffy, the off hand and slightly doomed Myerscough. We know these people. We don’t need to know their backstories. So, for the most part, we don’t. Until we do.
Every episode has a moment like Ottager locking eyes with Fallon. Every episode builds not just the horrible castles of guilt, violence and recrimination that the three suspects are trapped inside but the falsely reassuring dishevelment of the cops on the other side of the window. Myerscough has a crush on Hobbs. Hobbs and Ottager used to be a thing. There are endlessly arguments about the swear jar, about who’s booking the post-arrest restaurant. About coffee mugs. It’s the minutiae of an office, just an office that deals with people who kill. It’s comforting. Mundane.
That’s how the show gets you. The best magic tricks hide in plain sight and the back twenty minutes of ‘Jay’ are a slow burn reveal that starts small and leaves you, and the cast, staring in awe. The show produces a rabbit from somewhere we’ve always been looking but never seen. In doing so it throws itself, willingly into the grey area between innocent and guilty the suspects all hide in. It’s honest and tragic, disturbing and grounded and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cop show do anything like it. By the end of the season, the comforting fictions of ‘police procedural’ are shattered and we’re left with a starkly lit view of broken people doing their best, failing and maybe getting a chance to try again couched in a bleak, meta little joke that’s as much about the series being renewed as anything else.
Most procedural shows are concerned with the services as we want them to be. Criminal: UK has the feel of dealing with the police as it is. It’s cold, weary, furious and masterful. I can’t say I enjoyed it. I can say you should see it and that I’ll absolutely be watching the other strands too.