Culture Film & TV

BBC’s Line of Duty: Is it Time for the Death of the Mediocre Cop Drama?

Illustration by Ben Beechener

It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed since the first episode of Line of Duty aired on BBC Two. Since then, the series has exploded in popularity; it has quickly become a household name and pulls in millions of viewers every week. The new year brought us yet another series of Jed Mercurio’s hit show, which has proven to impress the nation more than ever before. The first episode gained the highest number of UK viewers to date in the show’s long history. And, every Sunday at 10PM, on Twitter, Facebook, and even TikTok, thousands of viewers voice their predictions and post-show thoughts. Series 6 spoilers have also been particularly hard to avoid. Despite all this, I remain unconvinced by the hype. 

My journey with the show started when I watched the first series as it aired in 2012. I was a big fan. I loved the gritty and dramatic style, and was fully invested in the characters and the story. And, as a twelve year old, I was not yet interested in being critical of a TV show for ignoring real-world issues. Jump five years to 2017 and I end up watching Series 4 with my family (having skipped Series 2 and 3), which I enjoyed, though not to the same extent as I had loved the first series. Another four years later, the BBC began pushing Series 6 considerably more intensely than previous series. Marketed to death, some might say. So when I sat down with my parents to watch it a few weeks ago, I found myself feeling let down that it was no way near as good as I had anticipated. 

As in each previous series, the plot of the latest series of Line of Duty supposedly functions in isolation from the others. However, I wouldn’t recommend going into it blind, and the team behind the production certainly expect that you have at least some wider knowledge of the ridiculously complicated Line-of-Duty-world. Adrian Dunbar, Martin Compston and Vicky McClure return once again, this time not technically all working under the infamous AC-12 unit. Of the things I still enjoy about the production, the biggest is that I continue to find it endlessly entertaining to spend the entire hour guessing what is going to happen next. There is no other British TV show airing at the moment quite like Line of Duty in this respect. Beyond this point is where my enjoyment of Series 6 stumbles. 

One of the show’s problems is its comical overuse of certain gags and one-liners. The way that McClure and Compston’s characters interact in Series 6, for example, has become often cringeworthy – in particular when they call each other ‘mate’ many, many times throughout the episodes. It has got to the point that I roll my eyes every time the word is uttered. I also think that the script for this season is lazy – it relies on the unceasing use of annoying police jargon and surface-level relationship building, rendering many conversations both boring and awkward. With the script they’ve been given, most of the cast do their best, but the ridiculous overuse of acronyms just makes so much of it seem dramatised and unrealistic. I have particularly grown to dislike Adrian Dunbar’s character, Ted Hastings, more so than can seem intentional as a writing choice. His steadfast holier-than-thou attitude towards literally every other character in the show is getting very old, and his line delivery is hilariously monotone, a character choice that really hasn’t developed well with the show. 

However, beyond all these admittedly subjective vexations that I personally have, there is a wider contextual problem that haunts Line of Duty, particularly given the recent public interrogation of the police as an institution. The past year has seen countless worldwide protests against police brutality and structural racism in the force, something which the public fascination with cop shows should have to address. Line of Duty’s niche within the genre is its focus on AC-12, the section of the UK police force that investigates police corruption – or indeed, ‘bent coppers’! You’d think that a show exposing the corruption within the force would do its utmost to critically address institutional racism, but instead the entire storyline of the show focuses on the world of organised crime. Organised crime is obviously a very real problem, but it’s something that has already been exhausted and fantasised as a film and television plot. Surely the most popular police show on British TV should accept the responsibility of adequately interrogating the police’s relationship with racism? The brief plot point brought up in Episode 6 that concerns the death of a person of colour in police custody is not enough. The majority of the filming took place in autumn of 2020, months after the death of George Floyd. So it is disappointing that this crucial moment in recent history, with the public demanding police accountability, has been mostly sidelined. 

With the finale still looming on the horizon, I cannot conclusively write off the show just yet, and my own negative opinion will do little to reduce its popularity. I would, however, like to think that there are others who share my views; if a show cannot adequately address the reality of the police as a racist institution, why has it been allowed to remain on prime time British TV, comfortable in its own mediocrity? Popular TV shows that run for many series, taking the place of other interesting programmes, must do more with the power they have to hold institutions accountable, instead of pretending that the UK police force does not have a big problem with racism