It is not an accident that Line of Duty, a fast-paced thriller with an ever-shifting cast is one of the most popular in the U.K. In a TV landscape full of mysteries (and a culture of a surveillance society), having a story focused around the premise that someone is watching the watchers and keeping them accountable is a comforting fairy tale. Add in a leader who assures us those watching out for us are governed by an innate sense of justice and a self-righteous moral certitude, and it's a show that helps people sleep better at night, despite its pulse-pounding pacing.
The Responder is not that show. If anything, it's the anti-Line of Duty, bursting that bubble of pretense that the people on the force are somehow better than your average person. Most are nothing but petty and self-serving, people who choose the profession because they are insecure bullies or power-hungry monsters. Even the ones who initially get in for the "right" reasons find themselves caught in a job that doesn't pay enough for the sheer amount of horror it entails.
The series is hailed for being a "gritty" and "realistic" portrayal of the police force and boasts of being written by a former Merseyside Police officer, Tony Schumacher, who rose through the BBC writing program looking for works by new voices. It is not an easy watch, from its opening moments in which we see star Martin Freeman (Sherlock) as Officer Chris Carson, close to a nervous breakdown in his therapist's office, to its dramatic end.
Carson is not a good cop. He's been on the take, making money as he can on the side. Worse, Carson was stupid about it because he got caught and has now been busted down from his position as Detective Inspector to driving the van on the overnight shift at his inner-city Liverpool precinct. And for that thankless mistake, he's now plagued with drug dealers who still think he owes them a favor. Just because Carson got busted down doesn't mean he's out from under their thumbs.
Over the show's five episodes, the trauma of his years on the force is shown over the deterioration of his relationships. It's everywhere, from the ruins of his marriage to Kate (MyAnna Buring) to the downright hostile one with former partner Raymond Mullen (Luther's Warren Brown). The latter is bitter at being busted down alongside Carson when his only mistake was a failure to recognize how crooked the man he was working with was, and he is still determined to exact petty revenge.
That trauma is also evident in Carson's day-to-day, from the opening episode's shots of him collecting still bleeding body parts from the sight of a traffic accident to the explosions of anger at those he winds up arresting. It's a portrait of the poverty levels of the U.K. TV often elides, preferring to send Americans to endless great houses and upper-class problems. It's tough watching, but Freeman is the anchor and the reason you can't stop.
Freeman seems to have made a career of repressed characters who are forever on the edge of a nervous breakdown. From the portrayal of the put-upon Watson that made him famous in America to his turn as the forever-chasing-after-wizard-nonsense Bilbo Baggins. But this series is something else entirely, a chance for the actor to get down to the core of that repression and find the pressure points that can set off the bomb that's forever ticking inside.
But the trick to The Responder is that what starts as a character study quietly seeds a slow-burn mystery that eventually engulfs Carson. The series begins when his new partner and ideological counterpart, Rachel Hargreaves (Adelayo Adedayo), arrives and serves as the audience's stand-in to be slowly horrified by her new partner's lack of moral character. But it takes off when Carson finally starts looking into the disappearance of Casey (Emily Fairn), which Carl (Ian Hart), the drug dealer he works for, has been demanding he get involved with.
The case that follows is as electrifying as Line of Duty in its best seasons but without the false sense of watching people who are heroes. Carson is not a hero, a thing Freeman never lets us forget. Despite his insistence in the early going that he only ever wanted to be "a good bobby," that was never in his future, if only he'd had the self-awareness to recognize it. But even the most flawed among us manage to save a life or two and commit a good deed here and there, albeit usually for the wrong reason. Audiences will keep watching, hoping one of these nights, lightning will strike for Carson to catch one of those breaks.
All five episodes of The Responder are streaming on BritBox. Season 2 is already greenlit and expected out in the U.K. in 2023.