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How TV Cop Thriller 'Undercover' Masterfully Handles Race in Britain

If you're not watching it already, the six-part drama is well worth it for characters who break out of tired racial stereotype boxes and reinvent the black British experience on TV.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

Rewind ten years ago. The buildup to Germany's World Cup. Indie still a relevant genre. James Corden just a fat guy who no one's really heard of. You would have struggled to find black actors in lead roles on British TV. But the pressure of parliamentary debates on diversity, people kicking off in numerous thinkpieces and a sense that you can have more than one or two types of protagonist have moved things along a bit. With shows like Luther and Chewing Gum in the UK and Shonda Rhimes' Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder in the US, television channels and producers are starting to wake up to the fact that not everyone in this part of the world is white.


Enter Undercover, a six-part drama airing on BBC One in the UK. In one scene a picture hangs in the kitchen of the Johnson family home. Its banality—a family outing to the seaside, all blustery sea winds blowing through hair and a family dog cradled under the son's arm—is what paradoxically makes it interesting. You see a black family at the centre of what becomes a massively engrossing story, set centre-stage without their ethnicity somehow defining their characters.

Admittedly, a handful of shows such as Babyfather, Love Thy Neighbour and The Fosters have delved into the black British experience and addressed ethnicity and racism. But Undercover handles race in a way like no other right now. When the show debuted in April, lead actor Adrian Lester told reporters: "It would be so much more powerful if we did all the press for this show without once mentioning color," yet its power lies in how it deals with skin color. Here are black characters who don't just exist in relation to white people as the reliable best mate, or as criminals or replaceable background characters.

Instead Undercover's storyline revolves around the real-life British policing spy scandal, which saw police officers form relationships with women who were part of political activist groups, to infiltrate those organizations. The story follows barrister Maya Cobbina, played by Sophie Okonedo, as she's appointed the first black Director of Public Prosecutions—IRL, the most senior criminal prosecutor in England and Wales—while simultaneously coping with the realization that her husband, played by Lester, is an undercover copper who's been spying on her for the past 20 years.


In the first episode we see Maya walk through a Louisiana prison to visit her client Rudy Jones, who's facing the death penalty for a crime he didn't commit. As Maya makes her way down the corridor, she passes cells occupied by black men. They're shot with blurred facial features, their hands the only visible parts of their bodies poking through the prison bars and nodding towards the US criminal justice system's intertwined relationship with black men. This scene's a perfect example of how the show dishes out a masterclass in drama. It shows that some of the most powerful TV moments don't need dialogue, and trusts viewers to recognize when a fictional drama mirrors society's off-screen fractures.

Scriptwriter Peter Moffat, who was also behind BBC One's Silk, brilliantly introduces a fresh perspective to the well-tread police thriller narrative. His excellent script explores themes of betrayal, identity and police brutality, while challenging us to look at our own moral compasses as we watch Maya's husband blur the lines of deceit and protection to maintain a happy home life.

The show also boldly captures the theme of police brutality, in a fight scene between a black activist and a racist man. You see blood spatter across the walls of their prison cell and hear body parts being broken across the iron frames of the bed and door, before the violent confrontation ends with white police officers watching on as a black man struggles to breathe.


All the videos of police violence from the US that flickered across our screens last year may have left many of us feeling desensitised. But hearing a British police officer on Undercover cockily say: "hold it, it's not safe to go in there," as the activist desperately pleads for help serves as a reminder that America's problems can also be our own. You only have to look to the death in custody of Sheku Bayoh in Scotland for an example.

Much of the show's visceral pull comes down to Sophie Okonedo's incredible performance where, at the risk of sounding like a Women's Equality Party brochure, she makes Maya equally embody fearlessness and fragility. She's exhilarating to watch as the gutsy, no-bullshitting lawyer. And Okonedo's just as captivating in the show's more intimate scenes, delivering a tour-de-force of emotions—contempt, fear, heartbreak—when she realizes the extent of her husband's dishonesty.

And Lester as the deceitful Nick Johnson doesn't put in too shabby a showing either, playing a significant part in positioning Undercover as a worthy contender for one of 2016's most gripping dramas (so far)—and not just because of the cheeky glimpse of his arse in an early episode. His character's calculating and at times despicable, but Lester brings to life his moral complexity, eliciting an often frustrating level of empathy from the viewer.

Like all dramas that are rooted in real life events, Undercover has had its fair share of criticism. The real women who lived with police spies have called the show "inauthentic" and they're more than entitled to that view. But this is an hourlong full-on thriller with the intention to entertain the public, not a five-minute segment on the Victoria Derbyshire show—it does a damn good job within those constraints. When viewers watch the final episode on Sunday the 15th of May, to see how and if the tangled web of lies weaved by Nick and the police fall apart at the seams, one thing is for sure: the family dinners round the kitchen table and perfect pictures by the seaside are well and truly over for the Johnsons.



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