Line of Duty: Subverting the Cop Drama

From crime procedurals, to fly-on-the-wall documentaries, to the current wave of reality programming, if you put a character with a badge front and centre of a television series, audiences will flock to it.

For a long time, such shows hero worshipped police officers, even when (or especially if) they were renegades playing against the rules or displayed attitudes that were somewhat out of date. Everything was alright as long as they got their suspect into custody at the end of the episode. Like the popularity of crime procedural novels, many cops shows on television play into our fantasies of a world where the success rate for criminal investigations is incredibly high.

Throughout the years, British television has given audiences famous works such as Z-Cars to popular prime time soaps such as The Bill, to iconic era-defining dramas such as Cracker and Prime Suspect with their complex lead characters and superlative writing from the likes of Lynda La Plante and Jimmy McGovern, while US television has been filled with smash hit procedurals such as the onslaught of Law and Order’s and CSI’s, to ground-breaking hits such as Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, both of which came from the stable of Steven Bochco, with the former winning acclaim for its approach to serialisation, something that many US networks tended to back away from when it debuted, while NYPD Blue became (in)famous for its attempts to bring more adult content to network television programming, along with an early rendition of what would soon become a television trope of its own; the middle-aged, male anti-hero, depicted through the character of Andy Sipowicz, portrayed magnificently it should be said, by Dennis Franz.  

With the behaviour of American law enforcement coming under appropriate scrutiny and Black Lives Matter becoming an ever more important part of the global political conversation, our view of the police has taken a shift and now it feels as if viewing law enforcement figures as hero types cannot be done as simply as it was. Truthfully, it probably should never have been so easy. Even something as light and funny as Brooklyn Nine-Nine is being viewed differently, such is the importance of the conversation.

When television shows and movies depict cops breaking the rules, we’re supposed to cheer them on, advocating the likes of Dirty Harry or the Lethal Weapon duo as they break the rules to bring their antagonists to justice, and yet it’s that sort of thinking that has seemingly allowed real life cops to believe that it’s okay to shoot unarmed black people or choke them to death in the name of their job, using intense violent force when none is warranted, a breaking of the rules in order to facilitate their job because they are the law; shoot first, ask questions later and be damned with the consequences.

It’s this environment that makes Line of Duty quite possibly the most prescient cop drama in years. Even though the series debuted in 2012, instantly becoming a smash hit for BBC 2 and achieving such high ratings that it has since moved to BBC 1, its storylines of cops breaking the rules and the officers within that system charged with investigating them makes the series not only relevant but a brilliant subversion of a trope which previous generations of cop dramas have programmed us to view in an antagonistic nature every time it has appeared on screen; the internal affairs character.

Think of any cop show you’ve ever watched, and the appearance of someone from internal affairs is the moment we’re supposed to get angry at some jackass bureaucrat that’s trying to make life difficult for our heroes who simply want to put cuffs on their villains, a system trying to curtail those who fight for justice by throwing the rulebook at our supposed heroes.

Line of Duty subverts the internal affairs trope right away by making our lead characters the ones trying to keep the gatekeepers of law and order in check and for once making them the protagonists of the story.  

The central figure they are up against for the first season is DCI Tony Gates, portrayed by Lennie James, and the type of character who under any other circumstance would be the lead character in any other series but whose methods, particularly that of ‘laddering’ (numerous charges being applied to the same criminal in order to increase an officer’s number of successful cases), lead him to the attention of the Anti-Corruption Department, AC-12, headed by the wonderfully Northern Irish Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar, quietly stealing every scene he is in and who, to be clear, didn’t float up the Lagan in a bubble), DC Kate Fleming (Vicki McClure) and newest transfer to the team DS Steven Arnott (Martin Compston).

Created by Jed Mercurio, the series follows a tradition of the writer’s prior, and vastly underrated work, Bodies, a BBC 3 series that centred around the inner working of an OB-GYN department at a fictional hospital and was an even darker subversion of that other favourite television genre: the medical drama.

After years of being portrayed as antagonistic figures in many other shows, Line of Duty puts anti-corruption investigators in an protagonist role of a cop drama.

Similar to Line of Duty, Bodies took an established institution that is part and parcel of our lives and dredged into a dark pit that showed how it really is compared to the fantasy that most pop culture portrays it as. Sure, it had Max Beesley as the attractive lead, but its increasingly dark narrative, graphic medical scenes and shocking plot twists made it a million miles away from the likes of other BBC medical dramas such as Casualty and Holby City, and a brilliantly twisted variant on the gloss of American productions such as ER and Grey’s Anatomy, which at the time was just around the corner from Bodies’ 2004 premiere.

That similar sense of subversion and stomach-churning drama is something Mercurio applies with equally devilish and twisted ease to Line of Duty but which feels even more quietly epic and visceral. Where Bodies confined itself to the corridors of its hospital and a birthing ward of death, Line of Duty expands to an unnamed city (portrayed by Birmingham in season one, and Belfast from season two onwards) and confluence of sections of the police, but like Bodies throws itself into a wealth of brilliant world building and an expansive cast of characters who are dotted throughout the series and each have their own roles in the story to play, some of whom we cheer on and others we grow to hate the sight of.

Alan Moore once asked, ‘who watches the watchmen?’ and Line of Duty portrays an answer to a version of that question by making the central hub of most of its drama characters charged with making sure the rules are followed by those who are imposing law and order.

There is nothing that can be more anger inducing than a dirty cop and Mercurio’s scripts never shy away from the potential for corruption that can be obtained in running the law of the land. Even at the end of the first season, after the villain has been captured and Gates has taken his own life in order to make sure some sort of order has been returned to the paradigm, there is another level of corruption to take its place, and the system that is meant to protect us is shown up to be one of with checks and balances that are only applied to the system itself, regardless of how it affects the public who it’s meant to be protecting.

While the majority of the plot hinges on the behaviour of Tony Gates (a superb performance from Lennie James), the series does present him as a character out of his depth and who is at the mercy of one bad choice that builds upon a foundation of other bad choices. He makes for a truly complex antagonist, one that isn’t truly evil but who increasingly makes morally compromising decisions to the point that there is very few places left for him to turn by the time the finale rolls around.

Even if he is a complex character who we sympathise with for a large chunk of the first season, what we can’t sympathise with is the system that allows those small compromises such as ‘laddering’ to happen, along with the toxic behaviour of characters such as DI Morton (a brilliantly cast-against-type Neil Morrissey, a million miles away from Men Behaving Badly) and DI ‘Dot’ Cotton (Craig Parkinson), who turns out to be a genuinely corrupt figure in the final moments of the first season, setting in stone events for future seasons.

Eight years after its initial premiere, the first season has just had a successful repeat viewing on BBC 1, while its most recent season averaged around twelve million viewers, in an era when it’s said that television is not a mass medium anymore in an era of on-demand and catch up services.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise, nor the fact that the recent repeat run on BBC 1 of its first season did as well as it did, because if anything this is a slice of television that’s tapping into something that maybe we’ve all suspected but which has now become a fact of life; that is there is culpability that even our so called overlords in law enforcement need to answer to.

Mercurio is adept at writing about the systems we need to make life function and turning them into a nightmarish world caught up in corruption, negligence and a function to serve their own and not the public; the law and medicine are two fundamental parts of our life that we need to ensure our safety and well-being and yet they are systems that are so easy to be corrupted and make mistakes in, a scary thought since they are a major component of our daily lives.

While we’ve always wanted to hero worship our detectives and cop show leads, in reality those worlds are more complex and frightening than the fantasies that so many of our favourite shows have portrayed. Line of Duty is perhaps the most prime example of a television show that takes the one genre that has been a part and parcel the medium since its invention and tells us how it really is.

Line of Duty Seasons 1-5 and Bodies Seasons 1-2 are available on BBC iPlayer in the UK. Line of Duty Seasons 1-4 are also available on Netflix in the UK, and is available to stream on Acorn TV in the U.S.

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