Half Light: The Shadow Line and the Golden Age of British Police Dramas

TV Features

There is no such thing as a true origin. Each source has its own inspiration, and each inspiration has a deeper source, going back in time to some unified starting point that, in turn, had its own unknown origin. If I follow this line too far, I’ll have to start talking about Gods or big bangs, so let’s simplify and focus: The Wire made police dramas sexy again. The brilliance of that show and its creator, David Simon, doesn’t need to be rehashed. And to call it a starting point is problematic, because it has direct roots in shows like Homicide and The Corner which Simon helped create, and shared writers with non-Simon joints like NYPD Blue. But the fact remains that The Wire—with an assist from the excellent concurrent drama The Shield— seems to have ushered in a golden age of police dramas.

Not in America, mind you, where Simon’s success remains unmatched and, sad to say, unchallenged. Instead, the influence of The Wire seems to have crossed the pond and fertilized an entire genre in Great Britain. To my limited knowledge, there have been at least five superlative crime shows released in England since The Wire closed shop in 2008, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that I’m missing at least one or two more. I’ve written about Sherlock in this space before, a frenetic and highly intricate show highlighted by Benedict Cumberbatch’s manic turn as Holmes. There’s also Luther, a dark, atmospheric drama about a paranoid (and genius) inspector played by Idris Elba (Stringer Bell). Upping the ante in the great actor department is the somber, brooding Wallander, starring Kenneth Brannagh as an aging Swedish detective coming to terms with a deteriorating personal life and a gorgeous countryside disguising heinous psychological crimes. More recently, Line of Duty has been drawing direct comparisons to The Wire, and features a Northern Irish anti-corruption unit that becomes involved, of course, in a sinister cover-up.

Each of these shows is truly excellent (disclaimer: I’ve just started the first of five Line of Duty episodes, so my opinion there is newly formed), but the one I want to talk about now is The Shadow Line. Like Wallander and Luther, this seven-part BBC series takes pains to cultivate a slow, foreboding miasma. (I’m still not clear how something can be heavy and sharp at once, but the British have mastered the act.) It begins outside, in a dark crime scene, where a corrupt cop with a fresh-faced partner investigates the shooting death of a former drug baron who had just been released from prison on a mysterious royal pardon. From there, the plot unfolds to include players on both sides of the law, each driven to examine what side of their own personal “shadow line” they will walk on as morality is tested at every step. The direction and acting are insanely intricate and beautifully outsized, with each new character assuming an epic gravity—wise, humorous, and terrifying, often at once—that encloses the show in its own bizarre reality.

And that’s the puzzling part about The Shadow Line—the actual nuts-and-bolts narrative of the show, while it follows a cogent line of reasoning, is ultimately poor to the point of being laughable. I won’t spoil anything for you, but suffice it to say that the plot is at its best when it remains vague and unsolved. When threads begin to be pulled, and mysteries are revealed, the result is often cringe-inducing. The final scenes in episode seven, especially, are unworthy of the brilliance that came before.

What I’m trying to say—and this sounds like an attempt to reconcile something, it’s because the show left me very ambivalent—is that the writing is great in the moments of interpersonal dialogue, but lacking in plot advancement. And isn’t that supposed to be the crucial ingredient of a police drama? I mean, we’re not talking about an art film. But that’s the weird paradox of The Shadow Line, and, to a lesser extent, the other British shows. The plot is secondary to how it makes you feel; to the emotional swings, to the interplay between characters, to the ominous morality play holding sway between the lines. The four shows mentioned don’t fail quite so grandly as The Shadow Line in concrete narrative, but they do seem to err on the side of exposing human nature, particularly the psychological nether regions, in an effort to say something about the meaning of our existence. And it really, really works.

That’s the central contortion of The Wire’s impact on Britain. Where David Simon was saying something about the endemic corruption of America’s institutions, the overseas adaptation came with a philosophical adjustment. What we see from English shores is more Silence of the Lambs than The Jungle. Simon’s approach was often called Dickensian (ironic, considering the author’s home nation) for the way it cast an all-seeing eye on the real societal failures of a still-young nation. But for these new shows, those flaws are taken as assumptions, permanent and inherent, and the eye is cast inward at the souls occupying the terrain. Can they adhere to a guiding principle of goodness in a tarnished world, even if it costs them profit or life? While The Wire asks if we can fix our broken institutions, the British are taking a page from Camus asking a far more personal, pessimistic question: How do we exist among them?

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