We really should cherish this period of prestige cable and streaming TV service. In a couple of years, as the streaming wars unfold, there will be an impulse by studios and broadcasters to retrench. More quantity perhaps, and less quality. We don’t know what will happen exactly but it’s possible that truly unique productions will be scarce.
Criminal (now streaming Netflix Canada) is a sterling example of incredibly smart, unorthodox programming. It’s small-scale yet, at the same time, large-scale as it spans several countries and languages. The idea behind it is ingenious and it stands as a retort to the contrived, unmemorable police procedurals that crowd the network schedules.
It’s a 12-part crime anthology series, with each episode focused entirely and unremittingly on a suspect’s interrogation. Thus, people in a room talking. Or refusing to talk, or being coaxed or intimidated into talking. And, really, it’s a set of four series, with episodes set in the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and France. This fact underlines Netflix’s global reach and the streaming service’s need to have a footprint in multiple markets. As such, it’s a reminder that, sometimes, great entertainment and art are forged into existence by the forces of commerce, the market and technology.
The first episode of the U.K.-based batch of episodes presents the template. These are, as you can imagine, very talky episodes. Yet in the first, star David Tennant, as the suspect, says very little except “No comment," for ages. Yet you watch him, completely captivated. You’re watching a flicker in his eyes, hand moving to a pen on the table and then withdrawing. You are listening to the cops, who are slowly becoming exasperated.
Each batch of episodes throws some light on the similarities between the criminal systems in the four countries, and the subtle differences. In the interrogation room in London, time is running out for the interrogation team. They can only hold the suspect for a certain time and must charge or release him. Tennant plays Edgar, a doctor suspected of raping and murdering his teenage stepdaughter. The interrogators ask him brutally frank questions. (Lee Ingleby plays the main investigator with a slow-burning intensity that’s brilliant.) It looks like Edgar must be guilty. He’s a middle-aged man with many issues. You sense his depression and fatigue. Then, when he finally begins speaking, he offers a counternarrative that might be just as plausible as what the police have thrown at him.
In this episode, as in the others, we get little glimpses of the work and private lives of the interrogators. Just elliptical glimpses, though – a few words while getting a coffee from a vending machine, a brief conversation in an office corridor.
Everything is formidably confined, mind you. You understand how police officers acquire tunnel vision. The intensity is boosted by the tight confines and meant to suggest, obviously, what awaits the suspect if found guilty. And then there is, in these brief scenes, the powerful reminder that mundane matters transpire while the suspect is undergoing a life-changing, traumatic questioning.
There are multiple strong episodes, but one major standout is the first episode of the Germany-based batch, called Jochen. The suspect, a self-important older man, a real estate developer, begins by aiming condescension at the young woman asking the questions. On the other side of the two-way mirror, a male cop arrives late for the session and is furious that he’s been usurped. Meanwhile, a young male colleague plays video games on his computer, bored by the case and the interrogation.
As the interrogation goes on, the entire recent history of Germany, from reunification to now, is being unearthed. A man went missing when the Berlin Wall came down. It’s no big deal, the suspect asserts, because a lot of people started new lives then. Slowly, ever so slowly, the past comes into focus, as it must, for the interrogator and for Germany itself. Outside of the room, we sometimes see the many shades of grey that is Berlin in winter, lending an even more gloomy air to the proceedings inside. The sparseness of it all amounts to a master work of simplicity and power.
The series – the U.K. episodes are the work of George Kay and Jim Field Smith, and directors and writers in the other countries follow their pattern – manages to avoid cliché and showiness. It builds on the claustrophobia inherent in its concept – people in a room giving duelling stories abut a possible crime. Some suspects are guilty and others aren’t. It all seems almost subversive in its bare-bones plainness, and it has the power to astonish. Savour it.
With that, I must leave for a short break. Back here in two weeks. Be good to each other and enjoy what you watch in this great era of TV.
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