Among the many reasons I shall miss Simon Hoggart’s presence as my Spectator co-TV critic is that I used to rely on him to take the heat off me. Since landing this gig all those years ago, I’ve always felt something of an imposter owing to my extreme reluctance to sit down and watch any more TV than I absolutely, strictly have to watch. Simon, on the other hand, was so conscientious he’d often review three or four programmes in a week. If this were the second world war, I’d be the equivalent of some Cairo desk wallah, while Simon would be a Soviet punishment battalion.
Line of Duty
I like Mercurio’s snappy, sassy, tension-rich screenwriting (he did Cardiac Arrest) and I like police conspiracy dramas — especially when they’re called Between the Lines. But this new one is hopeless. It stars Lennie James as an unfeasibly perfect-in-every-way detective officer: unrivalled arrest record, loads of awards, worshipped by his team, boundlessly attractive to women but still loyal to his wife and his beloved, talented daughters, nice car, sexy, relaxed no-nonsense manner. So good, somehow, that despite being obviously from London and even more obviously black, he has worked his way to the top of his department in Sheffield, of all places.
You’re thinking at this early stage that there’s got to be a catch. Probably he’s on the take. Maybe he steals credit for more crimes than he actually solves. But there he is having a coffee with a rich, gorgeous old flame (Gina McKee, like she’s OD-ing on Rohypnol, as per usual) who is clearly gagging for it — but whom he chastely turns down — when he spies someone being mugged in the street. Off he dashes to the rescue, demonstrating seriously professional hand-to-hand martial skills, even when one of the two muggers comes at him with a knife. Wow!
At this point, Mercurio asks us to believe that this paragon is prepared to throw his life and career away for the sake of his rekindled lust for Gina McKee who, we learn with growing disbelief, is not only utterly conscience-free and boundlessly manipulative, but is also the most evil and dangerous woman in the entire north of England. She has, would you believe it, just recently bumped off her company accountant because he knows too much.
No, really. It seems that Gina has earned her vast fortune not in the easy way of, say, setting up a welfare-to-work company called A4e and creaming millions off the taxpayer but through old-fashioned money laundering and drug-running too. Luckily, just when she’s beginning to attain such high levels of cold, manipulative evil you’re thinking, ‘She must die! She must die!’, Mercurio sensibly has her throat slashed by thugs in the pay of an even-more-evil off-camera Scottish crime lord who likes chopping people’s fingers off with a boltcutter.
Meanwhile, back in the world of reality, a bland young cipher from the police corruption investigation department is on his case. Problem is, we don’t really care. Mercurio has made the Lennie James character so attractive and the bland young cipher so boring that we don’t really want Lennie to get found out. Maybe this is intentional: the baddie so likeable you want him to win. Unfortunately, it fails on that level too, the difficulty being that you don’t believe a single thing about the characterisation or plotting or anything. Everything that happens in Line of Duty, up to and including those moments when they pop into a pub for a pint of beer, just makes you go, ‘Nah. Not buying that. In real life they’d do the exact opposite.’
With two episodes still to go (well, three, technically, but I’ve already seen next week’s and I can tell you now that the cliffhanger ending is so uncliffhanger-like it all but cuts away to the firemen with the big springy mattress waiting just a few feet below) it’s quite possible that the ever-wily Mercurio will yet redeem himself by injecting some plausibility into this preposterous farrago of silliness. Perhaps an alien spacecraft will swoop down and kidnap them all, like in Life of Brian. Perhaps it will all turn out to have been taking place inside John Malkovich’s head.
Tragically, whatever does happen, I shan’t be watching. By then I’m sure the box sets of Breaking Bad series II and III, which I’ve ordered from Amazon, will have arrived. Or perhaps even the first six episodes of Game of Thrones series two that Toby keeps promising to post me. And that’ll be me sorted for a while: quality TV at its finest.