So the latest BBC cop show is also a period drama. RIPPER STREET. As a period piece, it cost a lot of money. To its writer’s credit, the characters speak in period dialogue rather than like people from the 21st Century wearing period frocks.
Unfortunately, it suffers from something British cop shows have been since the 1990s.
RIPPER STREET is interesting to study because all cop shows reflectcurrent anxieties through the prism of the past. Fear of feral kids, hooliganism,vigilantism, and the usual obsession with serial killers, dastardly mean baddies, they’re all here. Like just about every British cop show for the last decade or longer, a total sense of joyless humourlessness, of fetishising gloom.
A spectre is haunting British cop shows. That spectre is pomposity.
It’s been the same with even the most interesting cop shows of recent years likeLUTHER and any other British cop show you can think of. What irritates me is the obviousness of it all: the way British crime fiction likes to wring its hands and remind us that CRIME IS BAD and MURDER IS VERY UNPLEASANT INDEED, as if tut-tutting at us for wanting to look at it while it wallows in the nastiness of it all. It’s a tone that’s less loud in American crime fiction, where it assumes you know all that and just gets on with telling the story rather than rub your face in everyone crying about bad things happening. It seems that British TV drama has become obsessed with crying and feeling bad like a bunch of Vulcans discovering emotions for the first time in their lives.
The formula for a British cop show has been reduced to this: flawed hero with optional tragic past dealing with tragic murder cases and a genius baddie who likes to leave puzzles and plays mind games. Baddie is almost always a serial killer in a way that no real-life serial killer is: brilliant and theatrical. At some point, the case becomes personal for the hero when his wife or son or daughter or girlfriend or partner gets taken hostage so that the hero can get wigged out and weep and lose control and probably also cry. If it’s a British show, he will almost always cry.
British cop shows used to have more varied formats like comedies or more cozy like the innocuous-but-barmy MIDSOMMER MURDERS or DANGEROUS DAVIES, THE LAST DETECTIVE. Now it’s all angst and tears and serial killers. I get that cop shows are comforting fantasies of the hero representing the State and the law bringing order and control to a chaotic world, and it’s perhaps a sign of how anxious the public has become that cop shows have becoming so formulaically grim and joyless. The serial killer is still the go-to bogeyman of most cop fiction. If you add up all the serial killers from every British cop show broadcast since 1991, you might end up with enough of them to populate the whole of Bristol. British cop shows invariable take a patronising, middle-class view of the working class, teenagers (often seen as feral and dangerous) and an almost unquestioning trust in the police and authority. To examine a British cop show these days is to tick off a checklist of middle-class prejudices.
In light of the massive popularity of the original Danish version of THE KILLINGand THE BRIDGE, I was struck by some commentators saying they were pleasantly surprised that as serious and dark as those cop shows got they had moments of levity and even jokes in them. With all the talk about how Danish drama might be overtaking British drama as the best in the world, it’s getting pretty apparent that British drama has been overtaken by America and Denmark. THE WIRE is still being held up as the new gold standard of cop shows withTHE KILLING a close second. Yet British television, despite its misguided desire to ape US television models, seems incapable of even creating a popular lighter cop show like CASTLE anymore.
I’ll leave you with CHARLIE BROOKER once again to take the piss out of the current trend in cop shows with A TOUCH OF CLOTH.
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