Pat Stacey: No crime drama can do suspense, shocks and plot twists like Line of Duty

Pat Stacey: No crime drama can do suspense, shocks and plot twists like Line of Duty

Jed Mercurio’s thriller Bodyguard was the biggest television phenomenon of 2018. Eleven million viewers in the UK and a substantial number in Ireland watched the finale.


Millions more caught up with it on the BBC iPlayer. It’s gone down as well with American viewers as it did with Irish and British ones.

As gripping as Bodyguard was, though, Mercurio’s other hit series, Line of Duty, which returns to BBC1 on Sunday for a fifth season (a sixth has already been ordered), is even better. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s Mercurio’s masterwork and in a league of its own.

Those of us who’ve been hooked since the first season (on BBC2) in 2012, have become deeply invested in the fortunes of the officers of anti-corruption unit AC-12: Martin Compston’s Steve Arnott, Vicky McClure’s Kate Fleming and especially Adrian Dunbar’s magnificent Ted Hastings, who’s emerged as probably the most beloved character among fans of the series.

If it turns out that, as was darkly hinted at in season four’s closing moments, Hastings is not the incorruptible paragon of law and order and scourge of bent coppers we thought, humanity might as well cash in its chips. “Et tu, Ted?” Please say it ain’t so!

The thing about Line of Duty is you never know for sure, until you know for sure… if you know what I mean. Its brilliance lies in Mercurio’s densely plotted scripts, which pull the viewer through thickets of twists and turns.

He’s a master of rug-pulls, reversals and revelations. Characters who appear at first to be good, end up being bad, and vice versa. Others you expect to figure prominently are killed off suddenly and brutally (Jessica Raine’s character being pushed out a hospital window in episode one of season two comes to mind).

Not everything is always as cut and dried as it seems, either. Even the rottenest rotten apple of the lot, corrupt detective Matthew ‘Dot’ Cottan (Craig Parkinson), redeemed himself at the end of the third season by taking the bullets intended for Kate and recording a dying declaration that cleared Arnott’s name and brought down the real villain.

Suspense and surprise, as well as those epic interrogation scenes, are Line of Duty’s trademarks. Yet, at no time has it ever felt like Mercurio is wrong-footing the audience just for the sake of it. The twists and turns never feel forced or gimmicky.

Unfortunately, you can’t say the same of other TV writers who have tried to emulate Mercurio’s roller-coaster plotting. The worst offenders are the brothers Harry and Jack Williams, whose breakthrough drama was 2014’s The Missing.

Read more: Adrian Dunbar: It’s not looking good for Ted in new series of Line Of Duty

Season one was superb. The story was genuinely gripping and the dual timelines brilliantly effective at cranking up the suspense. But the brothers tried to outdo themselves with season two and came unstuck.

There were way too many characters, with new ones seemingly being added in every episode, but too few to actually care about. There weren’t two timelines this time but three, later swelling to four. It quickly became exasperatingly confusing and convoluted, and very hard to engage with.

The underwhelming spin-off series Baptise, which ended last Sunday, was less cluttered. Still though, it felt mechanical, with plot twist being piled upon plot twist.

Neither, however, was quite as bad as another of their offerings, Rellik (Killer spelled backwards), which recounted the story of the hunt for a serial killer in reverse chronological order. It was an empty and pointless technical exercise.

The Williams brothers aren’t the only ones at this sort of carry-on. Every second crime drama you see these days, from last year’s The Cry to last week’s Cheat, seems to begin at the end or in the middle, and take a time-jump back or forward. More often than not, it’s nothing other than show-offy flashiness, designed to gloss up what is essentially a very ordinary tale.

Line of Duty starts on BBBC1 on Sunday at 9pm

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