Older readers may remember a time when people signalled their cultural superiority with the weird boast that they didn’t watch television. These days the same mistaken sense of superiority is more likely to rely on the equally weird one that they don’t watch terrestrial television. So now that the BBC and ITV find themselves in the historically improbable role of plucky underdogs, it’s pleasing to report that this week saw the launch of two terrific new terrestrial shows — one of which already looks set to be as good as anything on Netflix, Amazon or Disney+ (except for Get Back of course).
The programme in question is The Responder. It began with Martin Freeman as Liverpool policeman Chris Carson explaining in an extravagant but accurate Scouse accent to his psychologist Lynne that he was falling apart: ‘Another week of nights stretching in front of me, and I can feel it — I’m going to crack.’ We then saw him at home effortfully impersonating a normal family man as he read a bedtime story to his daughter. And with that he was back out to police a night-time Liverpool that could give the South Bronx a run for its money.
Needless to say, it’s not unknown for a cop drama to feature a troubled and world-weary protagonist who doesn’t play by the book — in Chris’s case by repeatedly punching wrongdoers in the face. What makes The Responder stand out is that this doesn’t feel remotely like a tired dramatic confection. Rather, it comes across as a furious, even despairing recognition of how impossible it is for Chris to be the ‘good bobby’ he sincerely wants to be.
It doesn’t help, mind you, that his old friend Carl (a very scary Ian Hart) has become one of the city’s biggest drug dealers. Or that Carl’s impressively large stash of cocaine has recently been stolen by a homeless young female heroin addict called Casey, whom Carl now wants Chris to deliver to him or suffer the consequences —which appear to include death.
Nonetheless, and somewhat to his own surprise, Chris decides to make a bid for goodness by saving the girl. Knowing what Carl will do to her — much of it with a hammer — he gives her the money to get a train to her aunt’s house in Leeds and drops her at the station with the advice ‘Be kind to yourself.’ (‘You’re talking bollocks,’ she replies.) Unfortunately, just as he’s having a rare bask in his own decency, he hears that Casey has spent her ticket money on heroin, stayed in Liverpool and is looking to sell the coke that she’d assured him had been stolen from her.
Interspersed with this main story are several call-outs to an assortment of disturbed people he can’t help much either: scenes sometimes played for dark laughs, sometimes irredeemably bleak and quite often both. Or as he puts it to Lynne: ‘It’s like whack-a-mole, except the moles are wearing trackies.’
The most obvious reason for The Responder’s overwhelming air of authenticity is that it’s written by Tony Schumacher who was once himself a Liverpool policeman. Another, though, is Martin Freeman’s performance, which manages to convey the truth of both his psychologist’s verdict that ‘You are a good man’ and that of a colleague that ‘You’re a car crash of a human being.’ (Happily, we don’t yet seem to have reached the point where a Scouser has to be played by a Scouser.)
All in all, I can’t think of many TV characters that you simultaneously root for and are horrified by as strongly as this since the glory days of Tony Soprano.
Compared to The Responder, ITV’s Trigger Point inevitably felt a little straightforward, with two lead characters of impeccable heroism. Like almost every thriller these days, it seems, the programme is ‘from the makers of Line of Duty’ — which may be why it opened with a brisk exchange of mystifying abbreviations and a bunch of armed police (these ones from CTSFO) breaking into a council flat. It also stars Vicky McClure as the bomb-disposal expert Lana ‘Wash’ Washington who with her colleague Joel ‘Nut’ Nutkins (Adrian Lester) now had to investigate what was supposed to be the bomb factory inside.
Naturally, however, there were twists — most consisting of Wash and Nut realising that the device they’d just defused with much nervous wire-snipping and brow-mopping wasn’t the big one. As the tension cranked up to 11, they discovered one possible high-explosive after another, usually right before an ad break. There was also a properly shocking climax when the big one finally declared its presence.
All in all, I can’t think of many TV dramas that have forgone dramatic depth in favour of flat-out thrills so effectively since the glory days of 24.
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