The Shadow Line Review: Not Just Another Cop Show

THE SHADOW LINE: Thursday 5th May, BBC2, 9pm

If you unveil a lavish new crime series a week after complaining that TV schedules are swamped with detective dramas, then you’d better make sure it’s not a dud. But with some people already comparing The Shadow Line to – say it quietly – The Wire, the BBC are probably safe from accusations of hypocrisy. Most of us are easily distracted by thoughtful and compelling television.

Our story begins with two police officers peering through a symbolically featureless gloom to discover a the dead body of Harvey Wratten, a drug-smuggler who along with his nephew, has just been released from jail following a royal pardon. As criminals and detectives alike struggle to comprehend the events that led to Harvey receiving a double-tap in the back of a family saloon, the viewers start to realise that with slippery characters on both sides and the moral line between the goodies and baddies not so much blurred, but rubbed out, this is more than just a police procedural.

If it wasn’t for the uniform, telling the difference between the aloof detective Gabriel (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and compassionate heroin baron Joseph Bede (Christopher Eccleston) would not be an easy task. Gabriel is returning to the front line after a surviving an incident that saw his partner killed and Bede is supporting his wife through the onset of Alzheimer’s – so it’s fair to say they both have plenty of baggage. A police officer with issues is hardly cutting edge material, but what is special about this new seven-parter is the way that both sides of the law are explored in comparable depth and each character we meet appears as ambiguous as the next. You just know that each and every one of them has a story to tell though and it’s a safe bet that we’ll be hearing all of them as this yarn unwinds in the coming weeks.

Rafe Spall is unnerving as the murdered crime boss’s young relative Jay Wratten, a walking sociopathic tic whom Bede must control if he’s to safeguard his considerable investment, and there are some equally shady characters down at the station. Of the coppers, Patterson is the most troubling. A vaguely smug savant who seems unable to remove the smirk from his face, he seems to know much more than he’s letting on at this stage. I’m sure he’s not alone but the rest of the players at least have the good grace to try and disguise it. David Schofield’s calculated opening scene as the poised Sgt Foley is also rather memorable.

Impatient viewers may find the slow-burning pace of The Shadow Line a little sluggish for their liking, but there’s much more going on here than is apparent at first glance. Complex character networks take time to create if they are executed properly and what writer/director Hugo Blick has created is a world of rich individual stories which come together slowly as the tale winds up. Each scene and every exchange is meaningful, nothing is wasted and we even get a banging cliff-hanger to get our noodles around. If this was an American show, we would be jizzing over our remote controls.