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Cynicism versus Idealism -- Crime Serials: UK vs. US

By Dustin Rowles | TV | July 18, 2011 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | July 18, 2011 |

Last week, a British commenter, Neil, left what I thought was a jerky comment on my review of season two of “Luther,” suggesting that “The Shadow Line” is a better British cop show and that “Luther” is “quite silly, although compared to most american crime dramas nowadays I can see why it could be seen as excellent in comparison.” Twatty though it may have been and despite my lifelong distrust of people named “Neil,” I was intrigued by the possibility of a cop show that could be considered better than “Luther,” so I sought out the 7-part British mini-series (it’s available on DVD in the UK and not too difficult to track down in the States).

I burned through seven hours in three days. It is a damn good crime serial, complicated and bleak, engrossing as it is dark. It stars, as Caspar wrote in his initial review, “everyone who’s good at acting that you could care to think of (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Eccleston, Lesley Sharp, Rafe Spall, Anthony Sher),” and it’s like a psychological Mexican stand-off movie: You get the sense very early on that almost everyone will die on both sides of the “line”; it’s just a matter of when. Special notice goes to Stephen Rea who pulls off that closest thing you’ll ever see on television to a white Brother Mouzone.

But it also emphasizes a common fault to British crime shows, at least in my estimation. What “The Wire” has and what “Wire in the Blood,” “Luther,” “MI:5,” and “Shadow Line” all seem to be missing is any semblance of a sense of humor. The same mostly goes for “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes,” which were somewhat lighter comparatively, but still lacking much in the way of humor, although there is far more pathos in those two shows in the other four mentioned above.

It brings me to this question: Why is it that, when it comes to televised brutality and intensity in cop shows, the UK has giant balls of steel, but when it comes to a sense of humor, the UK seems to have a steel rod up its ass? Why so glum? Do crime show writers in the UK not understand how much more impactful the many shocking death scenes could be if we not only got to know the characters, but actually liked them? Nobody important ever dies in an American procedural, but it almost feels at this point that UK crime shows have fallen into the opposite cliche: Don’t get too attached to anyone because he or she will invariably die. “Shadow Line,” for all its bleak intensity, dense writing, and unpredictability, almost felt like a caricature of this British trope.

Another burning question: Why is everyone so distrustful of authority? Thematically, the UK media — as filtered through its cop shows, paid for in some cases by the taxpayers — seems to have very little respect for the police and government. Of course, I understand now, given what’s going on with the News of the World scandal (a whistleblower was just found dead) and how it seemed to corrupt both the media and the government at every level. Was this sort of distrust and fear common before the phone hacking scandal? Because “Shadow Line” plays like a movie about the phone hacking scandal if you replace News of the World with drugs. Indeed, watching “Shadow Line” while much of the News of the World stories were breaking was eerie, given all the echoes between the real-life and fictional scandals.

What I’m getting at, besides asking real questions of our UK readership, is this: For all that’s terribly, terribly wrong with American crime shows — their tiresome, predictable, formulaic nature — there is something occasionally satisfying about a neat and tidy ending that doesn’t question your faith in government, media, and humanity in general. When it comes to sci-fi — “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood,” in particular — the UK seems to have a higher expectations of its citizenry. But where it concerns stories that more closely echo reality, the UK seems to be a far more cynical place. As far as storytelling goes, with the lone exception of “The Wire,” the UK wins in a route. But as far as an outlook on the world, I think I almost prefer the idealism of the United States.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.