(First published in The Bison student newspaper Fall 2020)
A recorder clicking on over a dark title screen.
A close-up of a man (David Tennant) looking straight into the camera.
The no-frills opening to Netflix’s 2019 mini-series “Criminal: United Kingdom” clearly establishes what to expect from it.
This is not a show that laughs – it is an endless intense staring contest of words daring one to blink.
With minimalistic camera work and an almost skeletal cast, Jim Field Smith and George Kay’s procedural focuses on a single interview of a key suspect or witness per episode, using the interview and discussions among the investigators to provide all needed information.
Taking the bottle episode concept and expanding it to an entire series, the two-season, seven-episode show is set in three locations: an interrogation room, an observation room and the hallway that adjoins both.
Cerebral, cautious and anything but glamorous, “Criminal: United Kingdom” contrasts starkly with typically flashy (or at least gory) crime dramas, drawing its European tone more from the Scandy noir-influenced likes of BBC’s “Broadchurch” than from American crime procedurals such as CSI: Miami.
It is therefore perhaps no accident that all four of its sibling “Criminal” series each takes place in a different European country: Spain, Germany and France. Each of these series follows a similar format, albeit with different casts.
The show refuses to give viewers visual thrills for shock value.
Although all of its episodes deal with serious offenses – and include frank descriptions of ethically dubious sexual encounters, murder, and child abduction – nothing more disturbing than a few still photos of a character’s bruised face are ever shown on camera.
Instead, the producers are satisfied confining their story to the intense but (mostly) civil words circling in and around the interrogation room.
This format, while great for the show’s budget – no unnecessary costs incurred through building numerous sets, travelling to locations, etc. – also allows plenty of chances for boredom to creep in.
Since each episode focuses on the conversation of individuals who rarely even get up and walk around, “Criminal: United Kingdom” relies upon intellectually challenging plotlines and skillful acting performances to keep its viewers from snoring.
In the certainly plausible event that viewers guess the episode ending, the producers are left effectively gambling on the ability of their episode guest stars to maintain intrigue.
A gamble that pays off reasonably well, since these guests include David Tennant, Hayley Atwell, Sophie Okonedo, and Kit Harrington.
Their performances as characters ranging from a business man accused of rape (Harrington), an accused murderer (Tennant), the wife of a convicted murderer (Okonedo), and a key witness (Atwell) define their episodes, and dictate the success or failure of each episodes’ story.
Luckily for the producers, most of them more than hold up their end of the bargain.
Starting with Dr. Edgar Fallon’s (Tennant’s) opening line at the beginning of season 1, episode 1, the cast display the wealth of meaning, thought and emotion that can be found in the barest of human gestures, enabled by carefully planned – if at times simplistic – writing.
The showrunners examine the ethical dilemmas of the uncertainties and ethics of police investigations with a fine-tooth comb, as their fictional investigative team debate possible tactics.
Not flawless, the writing finds empowerment through the unpretentious deliveries of the core cast of investigators, led by Natalie Hobbs (Katherine Kelly).
Although each member of the team falls into a fairly classic archetype, writers and directors Smith and Kay, allow the characters to transcend these types, by paralleling aspects of their own lives with the events of the interviews.
Hobbs (Kelly), the justice-driven supervisor, is also the key decision maker.
Tony Myerschough (Lee Ingleby) and Paul Ottager (Nicholas Pinnock) rival each other for the role of ultimate team mentor/surrogate dad.
Vanessa Warren (Rochenda Sandall) is unambitious, but far from incapable.
Kyle Petit (Shubham Saraf) – the kid of the team – a quiet one who no one trusts at first.
Hugo Duffy (Mark Stanley) – the fiery, intimidating one.
The team presents a not unprecedented but still notable effort at diversity through a fairly balanced group of investigators and interview subjects – at least in regards to gender, race and, to some extent, age.
However, these efforts are undercut by a lack of diversity in the writing room.
Both of the show’s creators (Smith and Kay), who also comprise the total writing and directing team, are both white and male.
The show certainly tries to represent all viewpoints fairly and factually.
It does not always succeed.
The lack of representation in the writing room make some episodes and themes – especially season 2, episode 2 (“Alex”) – concerning.
This episode 2’s plot boils down to two contradicting testimonies: that of the alleged victim (unseen), and that of the alleged perpetrator (played onscreen by Kit Harrington), who claims innocence.
Ultimately, the story seeks to point out that rape interrogations are part of a broken system: one where alleged perpetrator are often never declared either innocent or guilty.
The decision by two male creators to show the man’s side of the story but not the woman’s while making this point, is troubling.
Harrington’s performance, however, is masterful and while the subject matter offers numerous opportunities for melodrama, he never loses the headlong determination to keep it credible and simple.
Such dodged commitment to restricted cinemaphotography undoubtedly limits the potential following of “Criminal: United Kingdom.”
Those looking for stunning visual beauty or humor will need to seek them elsewhere.
For viewers intrigued by high-stakes contests of wills, dark procedurals and human motivations, however, it just might be too compelling to resist.