Netflix's Criminal: UK examines ideas of crime and punishment in a taut, riveting Season 2

There's no 'chase', no gathering of evidence, no crime scene investigation, no exposition — all the tropes beloved of police procedurals — in Criminal: UK

Rohini Nair September 22, 2020 18:31:18 IST
Netflix's Criminal: UK examines ideas of crime and punishment in a taut, riveting Season 2

Kit Harington as Alex Daniels in Episode 2 of Criminal UK, Season 2 | Image via Netflix

Fictional detectives of a certain ilk — Sherlock Holmes, Hercules Poirot et al — have long maintained that solving crime is "a matter of the grey cells". Criminal: UK, the anthology crime drama by George Kay and Jim Field Smith with a second season now out on Netflix, embodies that philosophy in its premise. There's no "chase", no gathering of evidence, no crime scene investigation, no exposition — all the tropes beloved of police procedurals. Instead, we cut directly to the denouement: one suspect/person of interest in an interrogation room, a deadline, and a team of police detectives using the facts they have at their disposal and a carefully strategised line of questioning to elicit a confession (or enough incriminating evidence) to bring legal charges against the interviewee.

All the action in the series takes place within one room and an adjoining chamber; the hallway outside leading to an elevator is the furthest “away” we get from this main stage.

The 'props' are at a minimum: a table, (usually) four chairs, discreetly placed cameras and microphones within the interrogation room. A two-way mirror leads into the control centre, from where colleagues guide the officers in charge of an interrogation to cues they might have missed or provide supplementary information that helps them frame their questions. There’s a feeling of voyeurism in watching what’s happening in the control room as the officers observe the interrogation; the watchers become the watched.

Netflixs Criminal UK examines ideas of crime and punishment in a taut riveting Season 2

(L-R) Shubham Saraf as Kule Petit; Rochenda Sandall as Vanessa Warren; Lee Inglesby as Tony Myerscough; Aymen Hamdouchi as Jamie Reiss; and Katherine Kelly as Natalie Hobbs | Still from Criminal UK S2 Netflix

Criminal's stripped down quality is reminiscent of theatre (and such a palate cleanser if you’re coming here directly from a watch of Ratched, like this writer). The drama of the confrontation, usually squeezed into the final 10 minutes of another police procedural, here gets nearly an hour to play out in. Over seven episodes, it should feel repetitive, but it's thrilling. The tension should lag at some point, but each episode stays taut throughout.

Season 1 comprised three episodes, featuring stars like David Tennant (as a doctor brought in for questioning over the murder of his 14-year-old stepdaughter) and Hayley Atwell (a suspect in an attempted homicide). Season 2’s roster includes Sophie Okonedo as Julia Bryce, the wife of a man convicted of murder, who the police believe may have additional information on a second possible victim; there's Kit Harington playing Alex Daniels, a suspected rapist; Sharon Horgan as Danielle Dunne, the founder of a vigilante group that 'outs' pedophiles after entrapping them online; and Kunal Nayyar as Sandeep Singh, an incarcerated entrepreneur who hopes to have his sentence reduced for sharing information on an unsolved missing child case.

Netflixs Criminal UK examines ideas of crime and punishment in a taut riveting Season 2

(L) Sharon Horgan as Danielle Dunne (Episode 3); (R) Sophie Okonedo as Julie Bryce (Episode 1) | Posters for Criminal UK S2 | Netflix

The line-up of officers this season has some minor changes, with last year’s regulars, officers Vanessa Warren (Rochenda Sandall), Tony Myerscough (Lee Inglesby) and Natalie Hobbs (Katherine Kelly) joined full time by Shubham Saraf as Kule Petit, and Aymen Hamdouchi as Jamie Reiss. Their tools of trade remain very much the same, however: the case files made available to them and their understanding of psychology of course, but also subtle things that work on an interviewee at the level of the subconscious — the thickness of an evidence folder, the slow cleaning of one’s glasses, needling, negotiation, empathy, and also bias.

Netflixs Criminal UK examines ideas of crime and punishment in a taut riveting Season 2

Kunal Nayyar as Sandeep Singh (Episode 4) | Still from Criminal UK S2 | Netflix

For the most part, the drama is confined to whatever is happening within the interrogation room: raised voices, the exposure of some truly dark/shameful/confounding human instincts. Less frequently, the drama moves to the control room, when the focus is on the backroom wheeling and dealing required for intra-agency cooperation, or for the levers of the legal system to grind just a little bit quicker, or for a carelessly dropped conversational clue to be examined in rigorous detail. And very infrequently, the drama shifts to the interpersonal relationships of the officers themselves; if in season 1, there was a minor narrative involving detective Hugo Duffy's (played by Mark Stanley) alcoholism, then this season carries forward the will they-won't they conjecture over officers Hobbes and Myerscough’s relationship, and a professional conundrum faced by Warren.

Within the interrogation room, the themes about crime and punishment that emerge in season 2 are broader than in Criminal: UK’s debut. Episode 2, featuring Kit Harington, is particularly striking as he turns a predictable interview on its head and for once, leaves the investigators on the back foot. His dialogue draws us into the world outside the interrogation room, where the time spent within it has negative consequences for these individuals, even if they face no legal repercussions. Episode 3, with Sharon Horgan, builds up to a point where her character Danielle Dunne's cocky righteousness and certainty in her "mission" is punctured. The fourth episode, with Kunal Nayyar, is the only one that feels a little less organic than its predecessors. It begins promisingly, with Nayyar's Sandeep Singh taking a completely uncommunicative stance towards his interviewers when they quiz him about a suspected murder. But by the time his hour plays out, there's a far too convenient solution that neatly wraps up a case or two. It sticks out because Criminal is not a series with a fondness for pat conclusions.

The only downside to Criminal is the extremely limited number of episodes. Seven across a two-season run are too few for a show of its caliber and addictiveness. While there’s no news of a third season in the immediate offing, there’s still a way to get your fix — via the series’ spin-offs, Criminal: France, Spain and Germany. Now that’s a binge we’re on board with.

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