Archives for category: crime

Last week I discussed briefly how British crime drama is either gory and horrific or cosy. Personally, I veer towards the latter, purely because I feel there is enough to give you nightmares out there without inviting fictional ones. That’s not to say the former are bad, I’m sure many are brilliant, but I’m always curious as to what drives people to want to watch them.

Cosy has its problems as well though. Some of these are neatly exposed in The Coroner. The programme revolves around a solicitor-turned-coroner who has returned to her birthplace in a small town in Devon. Here, she investigates the cause of death. Except she actively intervenes in the cases, much to the polite frustration of her ex-boyfriend and now local detective, often pushing him to investigate accidents as murder etc. She even interviews suspects herself.

Here lies the first problem – anyone with a good knowledge of the law would splutter at the procedures being broken. I don’t have this knowledge, but even I eye roll at some of her actions. The problem is, as a coroner, she isn’t totally an amateur sleuth either like, say Father Brown or Jessica Fletcher. She does hold a professional capacity, but chooses to overstep it.

The second problem is the tone. Take one episode where an investigation into the murder of a reformed ex-convict turns into an investigation into people smuggling. There was actually something quite deep here to be said about the immigration system and the rights and wrongs of who we let in. Yet the whole thing was thrown off-balance by a sub-plot of the local community nicking cargo from a ship that ran aground, with the coroner’s own mother stealing a marble statue and a local shop owner, who actually had a secretly harrowing role to play, brazenly microwaving a pasty for the detective in some stolen goods.

Of course, there is arguments against these problems. Firstly, it is a daytime show. The people tuning in at that time aren’t wanting high-pressure interviews or challenging social themes. They want a fairly standard formula – obvious baddie we meet at the start doesn’t commit the crime but isn’t rewarded either, while a secret, more evil villain is found guilty. Obviously there are tweaks – sometimes the death is an accident – but the wheel isn’t being reinvented.

Secondly, there is light and darkness in real life. Displaying the charming oddities of a small town doesn’t necessarily detract from some of the bad stuff that happens there. If anything, it is reassuring that, unlike in Broadchurch, we can have a bad thing happen in a tiny community and it not destroy everything.

Because that is the function that cosy crime serves: comfort. The reassurance that the justice system works, that most people are essentially good, that communities can smile at the darkest times. This genre will never be the darling of the critics, but perhaps its enduring popularity is that people will always want to see simple black and white scenarios. At a time when there seems to be ever more shades of grey, maybe that is a good thing.tth

Scandi-noir has a lot to answer for, not least the plethora of pale imitations that it generates. Ditto Broadchurch, with its perfect representation of how a horrific crime can disrupt a small town. Combining these two sources is The Loch. It has the macabre deaths of Scandinavia and its dramatic but gloomy scenery with the small community of people with secrets of Broadchurch. Tartan noir mixed with McBroadchurch if you will.

We have the murder of a piano teacher, and now a local teenage tearaway, both dispatched slightly horrifically. Everyone has a reason to look suspicious, including the paedophile doctor and the ex-con living under a new name. A top DCI from the big city (Siobhan Finneran) is shipped in, upsetting local cops and bringing along with her a ‘celebrity forensic psychologist’. Oh, and there’s a man tied to the bottom of the loch that nobody has spotted yet.

It is as barking mad as it sounds. There’s the man being kept in a drugged coma by his mother, locals looking shifty at each other and random wolves popping up all over the place. It is as if the writers were given free rein to do whatever they like, but when it came to filming the budget kicked in and tripping over into the truly surreal Twin Peaks style was put on hold.

Nevertheless, despite (or maybe because of) its ludicrousness it is actually quite enjoyable. With nobody remotely acting guilt free we have a whole village of suspects, although if it is the local sergeant’s husband I will scream in despair. Once you acclimatise to it, the oddness becomes intriguing rather than distracting.

Of course, for me the making and breaking of crime drama is in how it handles the procedural stuff. This is where The Loch falls sadly short. The detectives seem to just barrel along, doing what the hell they like. If this ever makes it to court, the defence will have a field day with procedural errors. The whole case will collapse in the space of an afternoon. It didn’t have to be this way: Broadchurch, Line of Duty and even Scott & Bailey are proof you can talk procedure and keep the drama.

But maybe that’s the point – procedural dramas are already being done so well, why copy? Hang the technicals, forget the rules, and don’t even consider the paperwork. The eccentricities will be a distraction from all this.

Still, it wouldn’t hurt to hear a conversation about forms, or an interview of a suspect done with all the quiet suspense of the show’s rivals. It’s what a lot of us like. You don’t need to dial back the odd, just turn up the real.

I tend to find that the talked-about TV that has people salivating tends to clash with one of my more mundane pleasures. It’s not that I’m opposed to challenging TV, I just tend to want it to be a source to wind me down rather than rev me up. This is why I miss the big BBC dramas in favour of an animated comedy or panel show on some remote cable channel.

Line of Duty was one such show. Until now. Series 4 started recently, and with nothing clashing with it, I decided to give it a try. And how glad I am I did. Two episodes in and I’m already obsessed with it, to the point where I long to find the first three series and catch up so I can appreciate every twist and turn.

Not that I really need to. The new series is, in many respects, a blank slate, with many long-running threads from previous story arcs now tied up. This makes it ideal for people like me to start following anti-corruption task force AC-12. A promotion to BBC1 shows the faith being placed in writer Jed Mercurio to deliver the goods – no more is this show a cult concern.

One of the things I love is that it indulges my love of detail. A good crime drama for me always has a healthy dose of ‘procedure’ – I always want to see the bureaucracy that detectives face. Whether it be the careful recording of evidence, the team huddles where the SIO lays out the day’s agenda or the interviews that are conducted like a game of cat and mouse, I adore it. Things like this are far better than throwing in a car chase or ludicrous plot twist.

Not that this show shies away from twists. There are plenty, and all excellently executed. It’s just that they are part of a bigger picture. Clearly the audience appreciates it, otherwise we wouldn’t be coming back for more each week.

As for the cast: sublime. Thandie Newton as our villain is par excellence, playing DCI Ros Huntley, allowing pressure from above to lead to her arresting the wrong man and digging herself into an ever greater mire the more she covers her tracks. Her paranoia over her head and hand wounds give her a Lady Macbeth quality, even when she is perpetrator of the crime rather than just the encourager.

Martin Compston, Adrian Dunbar and Vicky McClure are all equally fantastic as the investigators trying to chip away at Huntley’s defences. Compson, in particular, exudes a quiet determination to get to the truth, even if he lets personal feelings cloud his judgement.

Normally, I would find a weakness or flaw, something undeveloped or not quite sitting right. But I can’t. This is as close to perfect as TV can get. Thank whatever is out there that I found it before I was too late.

American viewers would probably find several aspects of British TV strange, not least the fact that we often have to wait a long time for our shows to come back. In America, a series can end in May and be back September/October. Here, due to shorter season lengths, a show can run in January and February not be back until the same time next year, or even longer.

Take Broadchurch. Season one was out in March 2013. We then had to wait until January 2015 for number two, and the third only commenced in February of this year. Our friends over the pond wouldn’t tolerate this. But then, they have shows put together by teams, whilst many British ones are one-man band operations.

Furthermore, it is worth the wait. This series, the focus is on the rape of Trish Winterman. It is actually a good snapshot of the complexities of such a case. The perpetrator is known to the victim. The victim is traumatised and is only regaining her knowledge of what happened slowly. The shame she feels telling others, as if she was to blame. The muddying of the waters by her own recent sexual past – newly divorced and rediscovering single life. The incredulity of some of the officers on the case.

What creator Chris Chibnall does so well is slowly release drips of information and emotion. The tension isn’t created by fast-paced chases, but by the slow enveloping of the fog around people, for it to clear away at a similarly glacial pace. All this is punctuated by small explosions of emotion. Tempers are lost and then steadied. It is often the pushing down of emotion, as opposed to the unleashing of it, that drives the energy.

For example, the sub-plot of the aftermath of the events of the previous two seasons is handled beautifully. The parents of murdered Danny Latimer have gone down separate paths. Beth has rebuilt her life as a counsellor for sexual abuse victims, being the emotional pillar she so needed those years ago. Mark is on a path to destruction, angry at the lack of justice and wanting revenge. The scene where he is confronted by Beth is harrowing, not least the end where Beth walks away, denying she still dreams of their son. Her ‘no’ is almost choked, because of course she does, but she cannot carry on grieving.

In lesser hands, the ‘guess the rapist’ plot at the centre of this could be tacky. But it is the realness of it all, the fact that everyone is given convincing light and shade, that none of the men under suspicion are without darkness but also not pure monsters, that makes this show rise above it.

It goes without saying that the interplay between David Tennant and Olivia Coleman is as good as chemistry can get. Both playing out their own domestic dramas as they tackle the case. He, fearing his daughter’s every contact with a man, she, scared of her son following his father’s violent past. It’s telling how good this show is that, even with these two in it, plus the likes of Sarah Parish and Lenny Henry, star power never detracts from the strength of the stories.

This is to be the last series, which is sad. But also, it is the right thing to do. After a ropey second series, it is back on a high, and can bow it with its reputation of being a show that is both mainstream and challenging intact.

Series four of Sherlock was hotly anticipated. How could it not be? The first three seasons had been near perfect, and even a slightly wonky Christmas special had more pluses than minuses, with any confusion overturned by sheer energy. This was a show that was clever, almost taxing even, but still fun and fizzy. It was like a tangy sweet that supercharged your brain.

And then came series four. Oh lord, where to begin. There have been more than a few murmurings that this season lost the plot, and I am inclined to agree to a certain extent. I will pick over the faults in a moment, but to do so I feel I need to extol what I loved about the show previously.

Sherlock is, at heart, a crime drama. It is, after all, about the world’s most famous fictional detective. Hence, what you need is a crime or puzzle to solve. The joy is watching the connections form in Holmes’ mind as it takes leaps of logic. The best episodes left you giddy and gasping for air, but wanting to do it all over again, like the most amazing rollercoaster.

This series, however, we have had two major issues. The first is that the puzzle solving has been replaced by action. Take The Six Thatchers. Who and why is answered half way through, leaving the viewer instead being carted off on an action romp. The episode was saved only by the need to resolve a second mystery of finding the betrayer. Even then, we felt as if the episode had been more of a character study of Mary Watson, in order for the ending to leave us more sucker punched.

This need for a character study blighted episode three as well, this time of Sherlock and, to a lesser degree, Mycroft and Eurus. Whilst there may have been puzzles, it was always more of an emotional drama. But I wonder how many viewers wanted this? I know of many who are walking away from the show now finding the whole thing a mess.

The second episode was, for me, the strongest, because it most went back to what the show does best. It was about how to bring down a villain. Toby Jones was brilliantly chilling and we actually got to see Sherlock’s mind working. It also, bar a mortuary scene, was gloriously un-action like. Everybody got the chance to take a breath. It helped that Una Stubbs got her biggest share of the limelight of the series as well. Seriously, how can one brilliant character be so under used?

The case for the defence is we now have a mature, emotionally astute Sherlock. His sociopathy has been blunted and his awareness of his impact on others blossoming. He is entering a new plan. There also rumours that, if we do get a series 5, we will see a return to the more equally balanced episodes of the opening series. I do hope so. People love a mystery. We are more tepid on watching introspection.

In the latest instalment of ‘Matthew gets round to watching something after months of hearing how good it is’, I finally settled down to watch How to Get Away with Murder. It is a perfect fit for me in many regards. For a start, it is a legal drama, one of my favourite genres. Also, there is a mystery subplot, one which moves us between two timeframes. Oh, and the lead character is a strong, well-rounded woman. Tick, tick and tick.

Yet, three episodes into season 1, I finding this squarely sitting in the ‘I like it’ category and not the ‘I love it, let’s watch the next episode now’. Surprised at my disappointment, I decided to trace the reasons for it.

I will start with the reasons I like it. The cases are suitably odd – millionaire framed for his wife’s killing, soccer mom has past life as terrorist etc. I always like to see how the legal mind works its way through puzzles such as these. Whether it is missing pieces of evidence or loopholes in the law, the mental gymnastics that are performed are brilliant to watch.

The mystery plot is also solid, although anybody who has watched similar shows before will probably see most of the twists well signposted. Desperate Housewives, in its early seasons at least, did it better. Even so, it is an enjoyable enough ride.

So if the plot is working well enough, what’s the problem? For me, it’s the characters. Whilst it always takes time to add layers to people, I find the chosen five students to all be irritating and/or bland. Wes, in particular, bores me, which makes it all the more frustrating that he is being marked as the emotional heart of the show. Out of the five, only Connor saves them, and that is because I have a soft spot for LGBT characters.

Annalise herself is also frustrating. I feel as if we have seen the ball-breaker legal woman before (see my thoughts on Suits last week). In the early episodes, when she is emotional about her husband’s potential role in the murder, I’m not sure if she is genuine or merely stringing people along. The rule of thumb for me is that you are allowed to take other characters for fools, but only do it to viewers if you have something brilliant lined up to make it worthwhile, and so far it doesn’t. Or maybe I am missing something obvious.

One final thought does strike me, which is that maybe part of the problem is that I am watching this through Netflix on my laptop, where the temptation is to open a second window and do some shopping or social networking at the same time. Not having my undivided attention is perhaps costing the show, although I did the same with The Good Wife and had no such problem with investing in it.

I will stick with the show, as I feel that perhaps my character judgements are too harsh for now. But it hasn’t claimed a special place in my TV temple. Quite frankly, it would have to do something quite spectacular to do so.

Sitcoms that have parody as their major thrust are a challenge to get right. Enough people have to recognise what it is you’re mocking and not to hold it too dear to be offended by it for it to work. That’s before you even get to making it actually funny, which is an even greater challenge, as you are working at one level of humour constantly. You risk repeating gags much earlier than if you have a comedy with lots of different streaks to it.

Angie Tribeca is the latest parody to launch. It obviously owes a debt to the likes of Police Squad, but has chosen the increasingly over-blown CSI and NCIS franchises as its source. The titles, using mocked up CGI-graphics on glamourous LA scenes whilst a rock voice screams, before it cuts away to the screams coming from a cop holding a hot coffee pot or something similar is an obvious nod to the pretentious title sequence of the likes of CSI Miami. It is also one of my favourite gags, just for its sheer daftness.

Overall, some of the jokes work a lot better than others. The interplay between Tanner and his canine partner Hoffman has me giggling away like a fool. The supposed relationship developing between Tribeca and Geils leaves me cold, however. It just doesn’t work, to my mind, to have a romantic sub-plot, even if you are parodying romantic sub-plots.

It also has another, more unique problem, here in the UK, in that it is scheduled straight after Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I am a huge fan of Brooklyn, and it has the different layers that allow it to have greater breadth in its humour than Tribeca. Because of this, its gags have a higher hit rate. If one character or scene doesn’t hit the spot, the next one probably will. Tribeca, with its one-note humour, as to make it all work constantly, otherwise it just doesn’t work. The first couple of episodes have been good enough for it to succeed, but I question whether it can last an entire series at the same pace.

Despite this, I want to give it a real shot. Like I say, so far I am liking it more than I hate it, and is able to tap its sources just right. Will it stand the test of time? Who knows? It’s raising enough laughs now to earn its stripes. Just maybe don’t screen it so close to its biggest rival.