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Cop Corruption Drama 'Line of Duty' Is Actually Worth Watching

The BBC series, about a police corruption unit who investigate the dodgy dealings of bent coppers, is one of the best things on TV right now.

The boys in Blue Harbour, Line Of Duty's AC-12 unit. BBC

Traditionally, police dramas in Britain have dealt with corrupt police officers by glorifying them as "mavericks". Old school cops like Jack Regan in The Sweeney or DS Ironside in The Bill were lauded for "playing by their own rules". You never knew which side of the law they lived on and that was supposedly a good thing.

Now, in a world where police brutality is more visible than ever, and convictions for officers who have gone rogue and served their own form of justice are shockingly low, it seems insensitive to continue with this trope of bent coppers as heroes. We need a drama where rogue officers, acting against the people they claim to protect, are held accountable for their transgressions.


That's one of the reason why Line of Duty, the BBC Two drama which is reaching fever pitch in its third series, feels so different to what's gone before. The show focuses on AC-12, the police's anti-corruption unit, basically dealing with crimes committed by the police themselves. The show's sense of morality is complex and confusing as the police cannibalises itself with claims and counterclaims of misconduct, corruption and cover-ups.

This series started in gripping fashion with armed Sergeant Danny Waldron (Daniel Mays), the head of the police's armed response unit, chasing a suspect down a dead end and cornering him. Having ensured he was no longer armed, Waldron then shot and killed the suspect. That first episode saw Waldron and his team conspire to cover up the killing. One of his co-workers initially refused and was headbutted for his disobedience. So now AC-12 are investigating.

That's the difference with Line of Duty: it doesn't drag its feet over whether there is something dodgy going on. It takes as its starting point that this sergeant was crooked and domineering and asks the more interesting question of why he chose to kill the man kneeling defenceless in front of him.

Line of Duty is written by Jed Mercurio who, despite having the name of a shit magician, is a fine writer and previously created excellent medical drama Bodies. Mercurio is rare in British TV for working to the "showrunner" model favoured by the likes of David Simon (The Wire) and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) in the US, where one person oversees the writing, direction and overall plot arcs of the show. The meticulous control given to these TV overlords clearly works here too and there is not an ounce of fat on Line of Duty. From story to script, by way of performances and cinematography, it's a show that can stand proudly against anything coming out of the States.


The show's first series started back in 2012, and the way the series was promoted back then you might have thought it was just another police procedural. But from the first episode, Line of Duty diverted from the typical tropes of a cop show. Vicky McLure (Lol from This Is England) plays Kate Fleming, in the first series still a newbie officer, who had been drafted into AC-12 to investigate DCI Tony Gates. He was "Officer of the Year" but was covering up a fatal hit-and-run by a woman he was cheating on his wife with. DS Steve Arnott, the dogged investigator, whose success with women is matched by his arrest rate, led the case. AC-12 and Gates became involved in a game of cat-and-mouse, with Gates seemingly always able to escape when he was cornered. But escape required him to plunge further into the murky waters so many Line of Duty characters occupy though, and the bodycount soon started notching up.

The repercussions of the first series haven't been felt in the current run so much, so you could probably skip it if you're going to start watching the show now. But series two played a much bigger role in the new episodes. It focused on an entirely new case: a police convoy which was ambushed, leaving three police officers dead and a protected witness seriously injured. The only police officer who survived was Detective Inspector Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes). AC-12 began looking into Denton's background and discovered a case which spirals out of control, leading to bribery, debt, kidnap and murder. But that's all I can say without spoiling it, because Line of Duty is a series that is liberal with its plot twists and thinks nothing of pulling the wool out from under you and killing off a major character or two.


The show is process-heavy and doesn't shy away from technical language. You're more likely to hear about the bureaucracy around burglary rates than an officer shout "Oi, you're nicked" here. It's a surprise then that the show has received critical comments for its lack of realism. The IPCC and the Met have always refused to cooperate and assist with Mercurio and his writers, leaving the team to rely on the help and testimonies of retired officers and anonymous tip-offs. Even now, the police want to stress that this highly entertaining work of fiction isn't how it goes down on the streets. When Danny Waldron was back working with the firearms department weeks after shooting a man dead, The Observer published a piece by former Met homicide squad officer Kate London debunking the speed of this and agreeing with Richard Horton, police sergeant and award-winning blogger, that Line of Duty was merely "police-flavoured".

At a nuts-and-bolts level there is always going to be compromise for the sake of entertainment. Nobody wants to spend their Thursday nights watching Daniel Mays do admin so that next week's episode really holds up, do they? But what Line of Duty should be lauded for is making viewers question the police and their motives at a time when confidence in authority is surprisingly on the rise. Despite a constant run of stories about police failures, a 2015 Office of National Statistics (ONS) study in the UK found that the number of adults in England and Wales who felt that the police are doing a good or excellent job continues to rise; up 2 per cent to 63 per cent. Yet figures from the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary show there were 3000 cases of corruption in the police that year and only half were investigated seriously. So you might argue that Line of Duty's job isn't to nail the minutiae of office life, but to reflect a bigger truth about the way the country is being policed. Perhaps it's time for Britain to take a more Steve Arnott approach to corruption.


The penultimate episode of the series goes out tonight (April 21) with a feature-length 90-minute special wrapping things up next week. A fourth run is already commissioned, but for now, we're left at a perilous point in the squad's history where everybody suspects each other and trust among the team is at an all-time low. Line of Duty knows how to play the long game and seeds planted series ago are starting to bloom. Trying to predict the outcome here is a fool's game, particularly when the plots are so complex that just keeping up with what's going on hard enough. All you can be sure of, though, is that it's not going to end with the dodgy copper who dispensed with red tape turning out to be the good guy after all.

Catch up with Line Of Duty on BBC iPlayer and BBC store

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