How Line of Duty Revitalized Cop Shows

How Line of Duty Revitalized Cop Shows

How Line of Duty Revitalized Cop Shows

Its easy to get bored of procedural dramas. There are always endless versions and re-runs of CSI, NCIS, and Criminal Minds. And none of them really do a lot for me, beyond the whole “it’s the afternoon and there’s nothing else on,” mentality that meant I ended up watching a lot of CSI with my parents. For the record, New York is the best one. Most of the cop shows that get shown now are procedurals. Given the numbers of people that watch them, this isn’t surprising. The different CSI have run for well over twenty seasons between them. The thing is though, this tends to leave the landscape saturated, and the shows feeling samey. So I haven’t really watched many cop shows lately, simply because they all look so similar. And the cop shows that I do watch don’t really feel like cop shows. Which isn’t to say that they’re not procedurals; they maintain some of the elements of that structure. Luther takes procedural structure but stretches it over multiple episodes for each criminal that the eponymous DS is tracking down. And every now and then, you get a show like the under-discussed, under-rated, Murder One. The first season of the show took a case, and had its investigation run the length of a full season of TV. The first time I watched it, a few years ago, I thought that it was the best cop show I’d ever seen, certainly the best procedural. I’d always wonder why more shows couldn’t be like that, why they couldn’t extend their investigations beyond an episode or two. Why so many cop shows had to be procedurals.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I started watching Line of Duty. I was looking for something to watch, and Netflix recommended it to me because I watched Luther. And Gina McKee was in it, so that was enough for me.

Line of Duty is, in the simplest terms, about anti-corruption. About officers investigating officers, and the politics, drama, and difficulty of it. It always contains procedural elements. There are crimes linked to the anti-corruption investigations that are done by AC12 throughout the show, from murder in cold blood, to the killing of a protected witness. So there are procedural beats that it follows, after all, AC12 can’t unearth and solve everything after one or two hours of TV. That’s just not how it works. But by making it about anti-corruption investigation, it already inverts the norm of cop shows, turning. It isn’t cops and robbers, its cops and cops, with all the grey, murky morality that’s required for it.

Like Murder One, Line of Duty focuses on one case for each of its four seasons. Of course, the storytelling similarities end there; everything about the pace and structure of the two shows is different. It has to be, a season of Line of Duty runs for 5-7 hours, and a season of Murder One runs for around three times that length.

Line of Duty also retains a high number of its characters between seasons, and doing this allows the show to organically develop not only the characters, but the cases. The structure of the show doesn’t break down quite as easily into “this episode has x, y, and z procedural beats.” The structure of Line of Duty might be better understood by looking at each individual season, and how it relates to the show as a whole. In the final episode of the fourth season, there’s an image of a wall of suspects, past and present, going as far back as to include Anthony Gates, the officer investigated in the first season. Just before this shot, Superintendent Hastings says to his officers that “this is beginning to feel like a life’s work.” Its easy to see what he means by that; in spite of all the work they’ve done so far, all the work we’ve seen them do, the corruption they try to expose seems to never end, and possibly go to higher places than they thought possible.

So, what does a show like Line of Duty mean for the wider landscape of cop shows and procedurals? For one, it means that they don’t all need to be the same, structurally or tonally. One of the problems with procedurals is that there’s rarely a sense of danger; in my experience watching them, it’s difficult to remember a time when I ever thought that a major character was ever likely to lose their life in the line. Without giving away any details about any of the shows’ seasons, this isn’t the case with Line of Duty. Even with shows like Luther, that are more intense, and less like traditional procedurals, you never expect Luther to die, because Idris Elba needs to be in the next episode for the show to keep going. Line of Duty isn’t about an individual in the same way as a show like Luther, which gives it the admittedly dark freedom to threaten, or kill of its characters, in a way that other shows can’t or won’t.

Ironically, in a way, Line of Duty is almost like the procedural taken to the nth degree. Some of the structure of each season is very similar, and the cases never end; the first thing the TV voice-over said after I finished watching the season 4 finale was that “Line of Duty will return for a new series on BBC1.” But still, either because or in spite of some of its procedural structures, Line of Duty seems to have revitalized cop shows. I can’t remember the last time a show like this generated this much discussion, but everywhere I look, on Twitter, in conversation with people I know, in texts from my mum, everyone’s talking about Line of Duty. And its managed to take some of the trappings of the procedural, the similarities in structure, the knowing that everyone that watches will constantly try and figure out what’s going on before the characters, and use it to create a vast tapestry, connecting  cases and characters long after their final exits. Now, maybe one of the things that makes Line of Duty appeal, and makes it so good, is that there’s no other show out there like it. If you were feeling particularly bold, you might call it the English version of The Wire, though. And that’s probably the best last word, hypothetical or otherwise, on why Line of Duty has grabbed everyone the way it has. The English version of The Wire? Maybe.

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