October 20, 2020


Why British Police Shows Are Better: When you take away guns and shootings, you have more time to explore grief, guilt, and the psychological complexity of crime. (CHRISTOPHER ORR, NOVEMBER 2020, The Atlantic)

Common to the British imports is a leisurely pacing that usually means each case unfolds over the course of a season. Many series focus intently on a particular out-of-the-way locale. Shetland takes place in the northernmost isles of Scotland, Broadchurch on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset, Hinterland in Mid Wales. These communities--and the ties within them that bind and fray--can be as important as any individual character.

Notably, the principal investigator is more often than not a woman. The ur-text of these programs is Prime Suspect, starring Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, which launched in 1991 to a British audience of 14 million, and continued on and off until 2006, garnering awards along the way. In Esquire, David Denby called Mirren's performance as Tennison--driven, ambitious, sharp-elbowed--"the most sustained example of great acting in the history of television." The program was a biting cross-examination of sexism in an overwhelmingly male profession. And although it also explored subjects such as racism, homophobia, child abuse, immigration, and alcoholism over its long run, the gendered undertow was ever present, tugging at Tennison in spite of her successes.

Prime Suspect has been followed by a remarkable array of British police dramas that are gritty but not heartless, realistic without being nihilistic. The best-known is Broadchurch, an exceptional program that ran for three seasons from 2013 to 2017. The show stars Olivia Colman in an unguarded, occasionally heartbreaking performance as Ellie Miller, a local cop in a cliffside vacation town, and David Tennant as Alec Hardy, the out-of-town officer who swooped in to steal the promotion she thought was hers. Opening with the discovery of the body of an 11-year-old boy--the former best friend, it so happens, of Ellie's son--the tale quickly expands beyond the specifics of the investigation into a portrait of a village wracked by grief. The victim's family, Ellie and her husband, the local priest and the tiny newspaper staff, the proprietors of the tobacco shop and the bed-and-breakfast--all harbor mutual suspicions as the town's bonds of trust begin to unravel.

Like Tennison in Prime Suspect, Ellie--she hates being called "Miller"--faces sexism at work, though thankfully far less, a couple of decades of institutional diversification having done some of their intended work. Her gender is presented as a humanizing influence, especially on her partner, who requires frequent reminders that the suspects he's grilling are townsfolk experiencing extreme trauma.

This heightened sensitivity is still more evident in Cassie Stuart, the principal detective in the superb series Unforgotten, which has run for three seasons with a fourth in the works. Played by Nicola Walker, Stuart handles cold-case murders decades old, and displays a rare attentiveness both to the victims' long-bereft loved ones and to the now-middle-aged or older suspects. (What's more, I don't believe I've seen another show on any subject in which a boss is so committed to offering positive feedback to subordinates.) This aptitude for empathy enriches the themes of the show: Does grief fade over time? Does guilt? Does justice have an expiration date? Should it?

Watching these shows--as well as police series from elsewhere around the globe, such as New Zealand's Top of the Lake and Scandinavia's The Killing and The Bridge--one can't help but note that the tonal contrast with American police series reflects a very different law-enforcement reality. Specifically, in the British shows, closed-circuit television surveillance is everywhere, and handguns are nowhere to be found.

Crime shows set in Britain may offer the best way--apart from actually moving there--to appreciate how much the nation has become a quasi-benevolent surveillance state. If the police need to determine someone's whereabouts at a particular hour on a particular night, they will dutifully interview witnesses, check phone records, and otherwise establish alibis much as they would in the United States. But they will also--as any fan of these shows can readily attest--check the CCTV. (According to the BBC, Britain has one CCTV camera for every 11 inhabitants.) That's true even on Shetland, which follows Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall) as he and his team bring justice to the tiny sub-Arctic islands (population 23,000), more than 100 miles north of the Scottish mainland. Those distant hamlets and lonely roads sit under the watchful eye of CCTV, too.

This pervasive video footage is an obvious boon not only to British police, but to the writers of British police dramas as well. Is your plot missing a link in the chain of evidence, a way from narrative Point A to narrative Point B? Just check the CCTV footage, and discover a familiar face exiting a pub or a telltale license plate on the highway. More notably, this panoptical scrutiny changes the atmosphere of the shows. The awareness of supervision lends British series a greater sense of control, of order, relative to the urban chaos that prevails on American television. Crime is experienced as a deviation from the norm--something that fell into the cracks between the cameras--rather than the norm itself.

The more glaring contrast between American and British law enforcement--both real and fictive--is the near-total absence of handguns in Britain. (In 2018, for example, London--home to 9 million people--reported just 15 gun homicides.) There are a few American-style TV exceptions that deal with terrorism (Bodyguard) or serial killers (Luther), in which guns are prevalent. The anti-corruption team in Line of Duty sees its share of trigger-happy "authorized firearms officers"--although even they are required to sign their guns back in after each assignment. But on TV as in life, the prospect of gun violence, either by or against the police, is remote.

Posted by at October 20, 2020 5:59 PM