Are you obsessed with Line of Duty too?

It was the copy of Radio Times that showed me I’d tipped into a minor obsession. That and realising I’d started calling a character in the TV show I bought the magazine for ‘wee baby Stevie’.

I’d never bought Radio Times before – just seen it on magazine shelves, with stars of British TV staring out from the cover. But this week I did buy the magazine (which is 85% TV listings) just because of a Line of Duty feature. The feature, I hoped, would teach me something new about this British TV series with which I’d become enamoured. In truth, it didn’t tell me anything wildly new, but it did help to cement some of the facts about characters and plotlines in my brain, which is essential with a series so fond of acronyms and complicated, interwoven storylines.

I was very, very late to Line of Duty, only catching up on all the back series (there are five in total, with the sixth currently airing on BBC 1) this year. I’d seen an episode of the previous series back home in Cork when it aired a few years ago. Unfortunately, it was a pivotal episode of series 5, the one with the big twist. Perhaps the biggest twist of all of Line of Duty’s series, and I’d only gone and ruined it on myself.

Line of Duty is quite the force – it’s the best-watched British TV series of the past 13 years, even above the likes of Downton Abbey (which I’ve never watched, though I found the film a lovely balm of mannered niceness). Line of Duty is a cop show, but with a twist. It focuses on the people trying to fight corruption within the force. AC-12 (the first of many acronyms you encounter in Line of Duty) is the anti-corruption unit that the series centres on.

The show is concerned with three main characters: the big AC-12 boss, the gaffer Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar); and Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) and Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), two detectives who rise through the ranks at the unit. The fact I can’t remember off the top of my head what exactly their ranks are speaks both to my ignorance of hierarchy and that acronym issue again. But hey, let’s just say Steve and Kate have some power – just not as much as Ted. And, sometimes, he wonders if he has any power at all.

Every season brings with it a new central character who the team have to investigate – usually a fairly high-ranking or successful police superintendent or detective who they suspect of being up to all sorts behind closed doors. These characters, like the tragic Lindsay Denton in series two, are never wholly evil, or wholly innocent. Like everything in Line of Duty, there’s a little bit of both. In series six, the ‘what’s she really up to?’ questions are focused on Kelly McDonald’s character Joanne Davidson, who, in true Line of Duty form, manages to make us feel infuriated with, sorry for and suspicious of her, all at once.

*****

The first Line of Duty series had a bit of a ‘daytime TV’ vibe, when you watch it back now, but that’s as much to do with the year it was broadcast (2012) as it finding its feet, style-wise. As the series went on, the budgets increased, digital telly evolved and things got a whole lot slicker. Since that first series though, it’s been all about one thing: Ted Hastings and his loyal crew fighting bent coppers.

Bent coppers – that is, corrupt police officers – are the reason Ted gets out of his bed in the morning. That bed, last we saw it, was in a poky room in the grim Edge Park hotel, which speaks to how disastrous his private life is. That’s one enjoyable thing about Line of Duty: the private lives of the main three characters are, basically, a shambles.

Not that Line of Duty really spends a huge amount of time trying to show us the shambles in great detail. We get hints here and there. There are a few scenes across the series involving Kate and her husband and son; all we know is that the marriage has a back-and-forth quality to it, and she’s sometimes held back from seeing her child. It’s quite remarkable how the series treats Kate’s private life. Her job clearly is the most important thing in her life, from what we are shown, and her family as a consequence must fit in around that. That’s not an unusual thing, and it certainly wouldn’t be were her character male.

We know that audiences love a male character who’s devoted to the job and a not-so-great parent as a consequence – witness the obsession with the ‘male anti-hero’ in the early 2000s, when we adored the likes of Tony Soprano and Donald Draper. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – TV would be beyond boring if characters were flawless and always made good decisions – but we’ve grown, culturally, to accept that our male characters can (perhaps even must) be flawed. Idiots, even. Murderers, perhaps. Fuck-ups. You get the picture. But female characters haven’t traditionally gotten the same treatment. If they’re a parent, that difficult treading between motherhood and career can become a big part of the character. The womb must always abide.

It’s been interesting to watch as TV has started to interrogate how women’s role in society has evolved, and Line of Duty’s positioning of Kate as policewoman first, mother second must be noted. Some shows tackle the motherhood vs job issue head-on, like Borgen, though I have complicated feelings on Birgitte Nyborg’s husband jumping ship as soon as she got power and life got difficult at home. In the past few years in particular, we’ve seen a further fracturing of female telly tropes. So now we get to revel in I May Destroy You, or This Way Up, where the female characters are (that beloved, probably reductive word), ‘complicated’, but in a meaty, gnarly, wonderful way. They feel like real women, or perhaps hyper-real women, women who’ve been gussied up just so for television, to entertain us, but contain within them the real truth of what it is to be a woman (and by ‘woman’ I include all the multitudes and layers of womanhood as we understand it in 2021) right now. Kate Fleming is part of that evolution.

What we need in TV and film is a variety of people’s stories, and seeing a woman like Kate Fleming on Line of Duty ‘allowed’ to pursue her career ahead of family is quite remarkable. It’s not flawless – built into it is the disintegration of her marriage, and the fact she doesn’t seem to see her son often, both of which must be incredibly sad and traumatising things. So again, we get to ‘complicated’. Kate is complicated. But she doesn’t spend her time on screen dealing with the emotional fallout of all this. Could this be seen as a flaw in Kate herself? I don’t think Line of Duty treats it as such.

The men in Line of Duty are complicated, too. Steve Arnott has a more stereotypical story – the young man who can’t quite keep it in his pants. To be fair, the character isn’t a lech, or a perv, he just tends to fall for women involved in his cases. Oops. Of late, though, we’ve had an upending of the stereotype, with Steve suffering a back injury that’s explicitly led to him having an issue with sex. The issue being, he can’t have it. Again, this story (which is treated compassionately, not in a jokey way) kind of hovers in the background for most of the series, coming to the foreground occasionally. So we know that Kate and Steve are having difficulties in their private lives, the kind of things that would really be troubling you day-to-day. Yet, for the most part, they remain focused on their work. (It’s slightly more difficult for Steve, as his love life tends to be entangled with his work life, but he does try.)

Ted, too, has issues. His marital troubles haunted him for most of the first four series. The crux seemed to be that as a Catholic, he was determined not to divorce his wife. But by the fourth series, she had met someone else (and in series five was beaten up by an undercover cop, probably cementing the coffin lid over the loving feelings she once had for Ted). It was time for poor Ted to move on, take off the wedding ring… and be seduced by Gill Biggeloe, whose name probably means ‘Sexy and Evil’ in Old English. Ted’s personal circumstances always tend to end in disaster. He even had a broken toilet in his grim hotel room in season five. Ouch. But Ted remains steadfastly committed to catching bent coppers, even as every high-ranking member of the police force tries to thwart him.

Line of Duty uses the private troubles of the main characters to engender sympathy in viewers. ‘They’re just like us!’ we get to think. Us, but with guns. While their personal lives might be in pieces, one of the more interesting aspects to Line of Duty is it encourages viewers support Ted, Kate and Steve putting their job ahead of anything else. That said, the show isn’t afraid of toying with our emotions around our fave trio. It’s become a trope within the show that Ted Hastings regularly declares how ‘nicking bent coppers’ is basically all he’s interested in, which is meant to show us that this is a man who is a paragon of virtue. Well, it did until Season 5, when heavy hints started to be dropped about the possibility that Ted was bent himself. (In the finale this Sunday night, all will be revealed about that aspect, but I doubt that Ted will turn out to be a nefarious crook after all we’ve seen so far.) At various times we’ve also been lured into suspecting either Kate or Steve might be just a little bent too.

Cop shows are generally about the good work the police officers do. Even if the officers are sort of corrupt themselves, or bad people, the inference is that we need the police and they are the only ones who can uphold the law. Recent protests around Black Lives Matter have brought the idea of dismantling the US police force, and the idea of if a police force is needed at all, into more public conversation. Line of Duty presents us with a world where it’s taken as read that the police force is corrupt, and that the corruption goes right to the top. What’s appealing about this is the human need for gossip and conspiracy that lurks within us – the suspicion that those in power might actually be the baddies themselves. Tale as old as time, etc. But not really one that we’ve seen explored like this on the TV in recent years, from the point of view of those doing the nicking.

Even though this might be a new angle to police life on screen, Line of Duty doesn’t try to make it look sexy. Instead, we’re shown the visually unglamorous life of an AC-12 employee. They’re not exactly out catching Escobar in the sweaty Colombian heat; a lot of the time they’re photocopying A4 sheets in an open-plan office. The height of excitement – aside from the shoot-em-up moments – are the long suspect interviews, which take place in a glass-walled office and revolve around procedural language. But are they gripping? Yes. Line of Duty has even managed to give cardboard folders, powerpoint presentations and regulatory specificities an appealing sheen.

*****

In the show, we get both the satisfaction of our suspicion about those holding the most power being the most prone to corruption, but also the relief of knowing that there are people out there, within the system itself, who are willing to hold them to account. When Ted raises an approving eyebrow at someone who’s quoting police regulations at him, we know that’s because Ted loves the letter of the law, and that gives us a sense of safety. When the gang continue their hunt for the mysterious ‘fourth H’, who is apparently at the apex of police corruption, we feel safe, because we know that there are good people out there.

Yet Line of Duty confirms for us that horrific institutional corruption, racism and abuse exist within the very structures that we turn to for help or care. A big part of the current series involves a care home where children were abused, while another part is about the racism involved in the treatment of a Black man who was attacked, evoking the deaths of both Stephen Lawrence and Christopher Adler. The series sucks in real-life incidents of corruption and presents us with the possibility that somehow, someday, justice might be served.

Still, we watch as the AC-12 gang are thwarted at every turn; we learn not to trust any new characters. We find ourselves rewinding facial expressions or googling certain words, to see if Jed Mercurio, the series creator and writer, has been leaving little breadcrumbs for us. We become, at times, our own at-home anti-corruption unit, trying to figure out if the people searching for bent coppers are bent themselves. It’s a clever game that Mercurio has got going. There are podcasts dedicated to interrogating and dissecting episodes scene by scene, and of course I’ve started listening to them too. In the world of Line of Duty, you can never have too much information.

But aside from the heaviness of the series and its aims, there is always lightness. In recent series, Steve Arnott has started to sport terrible glossy waistcoats, so bad that I’d miss them if they were gone. (I’ve also started calling him ‘wee baby Stevie’ for some reason.) Kate got to say the incredible line ‘Now stop making a tit of yourself and piss off’, which made a nice change from the usual office banter. Further levity is provided by the fact some of the baddies are a touch OTT, in an enjoyable way. Patricia Carmichael, played by Anna Maxwell Martin, is a stunning slice of contempt in human form. The Big Baddie, Philip Osborne (Owen Teale), might as well have a flashing neon sign that reads ‘I AM A VERY BAD MAN’ above his head every time he appears on screen. If he’s not the fourth H, then my hat’s off to Mercurio for a stunning bit of misdirection.

*****

I can’t wait for the days when I don’t have to insert ‘in the time of the coronavirus’ into every bloody thing I write, but, in the time of the coronavirus (sorry), it has been a joy and a welcome distraction to have Line of Duty to watch every Sunday evening (BBC1, 9pm, folks). Binging on all the series distracted me from the world outside, and introduced me to new TV shows and actors; the timing of the show helped to significantly curb my Sunday fear.

When the latest series is over, it’s been heavily hinted that Line of Duty won’t be returning. That makes sense to me. I am a big believer in ending things when they’re at their best, not tearing the arse out of something that was great, diluting it beyond recognition (if I’m permitted to mix metaphors). If your series does everything it can do in six episodes, then call it a halt, babe. That Line of Duty has persisted to six series and become more popular while also remaining actually good is somewhat of a miracle, when you think about it. There are so few shows that retain their quality beyond a certain point. That’s why we hug close our Wire boxset, and why Sopranos will never not be an obsession for some people. It’s why I’m thinking of rewatching ER, and why I frequently see people giving out about Grey’s Anatomy, which appears to have wildly overstayed its welcome for some.

So, Line of Duty. I look forward to finding out who H is. I hope that Steve’s back gets fixed, and he gets help for his codeine addiction. I hope Kate continues to work her way up the police chain. I hope Ted retires in a blaze of glory and finds a partner similar enough to but different enough from his ex-wife to make him feel love again. And if we don’t get another series, I’m fine with it. I think.

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