“It’s all so predictable,” begins detective Tony Myerscough, offering both a comment on the accused’s story and, perhaps, taking a shot at the more open-and-shut crime dramas that fill the airwaves. Criminal, though, is anything but predictable.
The new Netflix show’s ambition comes across in its unique premise: an anthology series featuring 12 cases, split across four blocks, with the UK, France, Germany and Spain getting three episodes each. Only the various detectives and officers carry across each country’s respective episodes, with the person being charged with a crime (or not, as the case may be) changing each episode. What makes Criminal truly stand out, however, is not the alleged murderers and thieves being put forward, but the fact the camera never strays outside the police station itself. As such, Criminal’s UK opening episode makes for a brave and utterly compelling 45 minutes of television that is, unfortunately, sometimes guilty of being slightly too clever for its own good.
The UK premiere, “Edgar”, makes for the perfect starting point thanks to its star power and lack of language barrier. David Tennant plays the titular character, a doctor (not the time-traveling kind) who has supposedly raped and murdered his step-daughter. With just two hours until Edgar can be released (a narrative device that also mirrors real-life British law), the ticking clock starts, the tension ratchets up, and you’re instantly on edge.
Fans of Her Story or Line of Duty’s season-ending bumper interrogation scenes will feel right at home here. Every facial tic, sharp intake of breath, and lack of eye contact is relentlessly scrutinised by the claustrophobic nature of Criminal. There are no flashbacks, and there isn’t a let-up in questioning. The direction, too, is superb. Lights feel a little too bright and the camera rarely deviates from Edgar. It wants into his mind just as much as we do. It might not be palatable for some, especially those looking for a fast-paced whodunnit, but Criminal is as warts-and-all as it comes, right down to the little idiosyncrasies in Tennant’s outstanding performance.
At one moment, he looks away a little too quickly when shown a picture of his step-daughter – is it guilt or hardened grief? – and, from there, the restrained rage of Edgar bubbles away and reveals itself. Rather than making a flurry of ‘No comments’, the man must confront the truth of what has happened to his step-daughter. It’s every bit of captivating as it sounds as the many layers of Edgar are peeled away. Each country’s series, too, promises to reflect the force’s own techniques. Here, the UK contingent prod, tease, and even lie to try and force Edgar’s hand. It’s uncomfortable viewing, but makes for an intriguing duel that will leave you guessing about the outcome until the final few minutes.
Criminal, then, is among the most breathless TV shows you’ll watch all year, but not without its faults.
The endlessly razor-quick dialogue from the detectives, the superior officers, and eventually Edgar, becomes increasingly at odds with the minimalist, realistic structure of Criminal. It’s all a little too sleek, with comebacks becoming commonplace and the methodical, drawn-out nature of the questions eventually fading away as verbal jousting takes precedence. It’s at that moment you remember, yes, you’re watching a TV show, albeit a very good one with accomplished acting, but a TV show nonetheless.
The attempts to flesh out the supporting cast of police officers are also extremely pigeon-holed. Knowing that we’re only, at best, going to see these side characters in another two episodes means that each second spent learning about their home lives and personal relationships ends up feeling wasted and more like background noise.
Detective Myerscough’s unrequited love for his superior, for example, may make him feel a bit more human, it’s just hard to find time to care when your mind (and heart) is racing from all the action in the interrogation room. It also remains to be seen whether future cases are quite as compelling as the opening salvo. For a show that’s going to live and die by each case and how believably frustrating it is to eventually get to the truth, a series of clunkers might stop the show dead in its tracks.
When Criminal gets going, though, you won’t want it to stop. Sure, it feels like a one-act play, with all the same limitations, and the decision not to serialise the show means that, once the grand reveal has been unveiled, you won’t be rushing to watch it again anytime soon. Yet it achieves something rare: it feels new.
Criminal is not for everyone. It’s not going to appeal to those looking to crack a case featuring multiple suspects and a heavy-drinking cop who doesn’t play by the rules. It’s not for those who want to fall in love with masterminds and hope everything winds up in a grand conspiracy, with a cliffhanger ready-in-waiting. Criminal is, for the most part, a staggering display of restraint, showing what happens when seemingly ordinary people go through one of the worst days of their lives – and it’s a worthy addition to the crime canon.