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Sunday, 21 March 2021

REVIEW: Line Of Duty returns with a 'back to basics' approach.

 Whether fair or not, long-running TV shows often have the burden of expectation attached to them ahead of a new series. This is certainly true with Line of Duty, which returned to BBC One tonight, as it's a series which is known for its explosive openers. Over the past five series, the Line of Duty opener has been synonymous with shock deaths, engaging set pieces and tantalising cliffhangers. As a fan of the show since the first series in 2012, I went into tonight's series six opener with high expectations. Unfortunately, these expectations weren't met, but that's not to say that the episode wasn't completely without merit. 


This series focuses on an ongoing investigation into the murder of journalist Gail Vella; who was shot outside her house in September of 2019. This first episode is set thirteen months into the investigation which has been led by DCI Joanne Davidson (Kelly MacDonald) almost since its inception. Aiding Davidson is Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), who left AC-12 after the events of the last series and appears to have ingratiated herself with the rest of the Murder Investigation Team. The opening scenes of tonight's instalment also added the acronym CHIS, which stands for covert human intelligence source, to the Line of Duty vernacular. It's a CHIS who identifies Ross Turner as a new prime suspect in the Vella investigation, with the team thwarted in their initial attempts to apprehend this new target due to the credibility of the informant. 

The team are finally given the clearance to attend the following day but are again delayed in their attempts when Davidson spots what she identifies as an armed robbery, making the police convoy change route. Although Davidson's suspicions prove correct, the apprehension of the criminals halts Turner's arrest, especially after one of the robbers is shot by an officer. It's later revealed that this delay also meant that there was no surveillance team watching Turner's address due to a miscommunication over the type of lens being used. When Davidson and her team finally arrive at the address they apprehend a suspect who initially identifies himself as Turner, even though eagle-eyed viewers of the programme will recognise him as Terry Boyle (Tommy Jessop). 

Given his additional needs, the team find interviewing Boyle tough and they struggle to find evidence linking him to the murder of Vella, with the only link between the pair being the cuttings found at both the address given by the CHIS and later his own home address. Keen to find a link between Boyle and Turner, Macdonald attempts to uncover the identity of the CHIS,; however, his handler isn't forthcoming with this information.  Several scenes later, the body of the CHIS; Alistair Oldroyd, is found and the suspicion is that he was murdered after his identity was revealed. 

As suspicions mount over the inconsistencies in the case, specifically the delay in apprehending Turner, one of MacDonald's team, Farida Jafri (Anneika Rose), comes to AC-12 to bring her concerns to Steve Arnott (Martin Compston). It seems that Steve is listless in his job and is looking to move on to pastures new; a fact that is revealed during a rendezvous with his former flame Nicola Rogerson (Christina Chong). Initial enquiries into the incident find that the men who were arrested for the robbery had very few past convictions, which arises suspicions with Steve and AC-12's newest recruit Chloe (Shalom Brune-Franklin). Although initially sceptical, Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) eventually allows Steve to investigate the possibility of corruption in the case. However, this puts Kate in an awkward position as she finds out about the AC-12 investigation and the possibility of her becoming a UCO once again. 

An element that this episode lacked for me was either an explosive plot twist or cliffhanger. The nearest we got to this was the revelation that Davison and Farida had been in a romantic relationship prior to the events of the episode. The fact that this episode had soured, primarily as Farida believe that Davidson had been unfaithful, put some doubt on whether Farida's motivation for approaching AC-12 was based on revenge. I don't feel that much was done to turn Davidson into the captivating figure we are used to seeing as AC-12's prime target. I've come away from previous Line of Duty openers feeling like I knew who  Lindsey Denton, Roz Huntley and John Corbett were but I can't say the same for Joanne Davidson. The only things I truly feel like I know about Davidson are that she's paranoid; given the multiple locks on her door and that she has a tricky relationship with her family. This, unfortunately, isn't enough to make me anticipate the inevitable showdown between her and AC-12. 

Furthermore, I felt that the pacing of the episode was just a little off, with the narrative structure making it seem disjointed at times. As the opening set-piece involved the delay in apprehending a suspect it had to be quite disjointed in nature which affected the sense of immediacy that these scenes tend to have. The fact that this sequence was interrupted by a scene illustrating Steve's malaise at AC-12 made it feel even more elongated. The two interview scenes with Terry Boyle didn't feel as engaging as prior Line of Duty interrogations, especially given there is little doubt that this initial suspect is the fall guy for the real perpetrator. As previously mentioned, I didn't feel that there was enough time to properly get to know Davidson outside of work, with the scenes between she and Farida at the latter's home being the first where we got to see the real Jo. 


With Kate now being firmly implanted in the Murder Investigation Team, Steve in a slight quandary and Hastings being painted as the force's pariah it feels as if all three soon may be going their separate ways. Even the scenes between Steve and Hastings felt like there was something missing as their interactions didn't have the same dynamism they once did. It may well be that this is partly due to the cloud that's hanging over AC-12 because of Hastings' misdemeanours in the last series, but something was lacking for me during these moments. 

One of the key strengths of the show is the chemistry between the three leads and that was clear when Steve and Kate had their only scene together. Vicky McClure and Martin Compston are fantastic together, with their chemistry being perfectly set at this point. The scene in which Steve informs Kate of their intention to investigate the handling of the Vella case was one of the episode's most engaging thanks to the two actors. Given he was the star of the last few series, I found that Adrian Dunbar was given little to do here other than look slightly forlorn. Although I'm sure he'll come into his own over the next few episodes, I found the involvement of 'The Gaffer' to be lacking. I also didn't find Kelly McDonald particularly compelling as Davidson, although I don't know whether this was more to do with a lack of interest in the character rather than the performance itself. 

Despite these criticisms, I still found myself engaged in the episode with show creator Jed Mercurio dropping enough questions for me want to return for the answers. Mercurio has always been good at rewarding both the audience's attention and loyalty by bringing back characters from past series whilst also not feeling the need to explain every plot point. This is mainly represented in the character of Terry Boyle, who we discovered last time had Jackie Laverty's body in his freezer since series one, as he's somebody that isn't instantly recognisable as a Line of Duty regular but will be familiar to those who are invested in the show. For me, it was the scenes with Boyle that had the most intrigue as his involvement in the programme makes me believe that there is organised crime involvement in Gail Vella's murder that some are keen in hiding. 

I also appreciated how this episode felt very stripped back and didn't seem as big in nature as the series five opener did. One of my main issues with series five was the overblown nature of the plot, especially the way in which the Hastings character was used, and this opener appeared to suggest that there is a back-to-basics approach being employed. This meant an enhanced focus on the investigation and protocol whilst not particularly giving us much when it came to the characters. Whilst this did impact my enjoyment to an extent, I felt that Mercurio was telling the audience that this isn't the Line of Duty series that you were expecting. 

Ultimately, whilst this episode didn't meet my high expectations, there was still a lot to like from the underlying mystery aspect to the chemistry between the leads. Although I don't feel the team have done enough to make me overly intrigued about AC-12's key target of Joanne Davidson, there was still more than enough for me to come back and find out exactly what Jed Mercurio and company have got planned for the rest of this series. It's quite possible the lack of twist or watercooler moment in this first episode could be seen as a twist in itself.

Contributed by Matt Donnelly

                   Line of Duty Continues Sunday 9.00pm on BBC One

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