Crime TV
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Crime Sells in TV: ‘The Responder’, ‘Shardlake’, and ‘Eric’

For compelling and worrisome reasons, crime sells in our TV entertainment. The Responder, Shardlake, and Eric feed our brutal compulsion in varying ways.

After an exciting but uneven winter season, Spring has quickly tackled us clean with various highbrow television. Unsurprisingly, crime of the most eclectic variety shines front and center. Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner’s Fallout, a hilarious, violent post-apocalyptic satire based on the legendary game franchise, was the most popular show on streaming on Amazon Prime in April; the unending bouts of murder and rampage laced with morbid humor won over millions. 

In the vein of morbidity, Richard Gadd’s Baby Reindeer, a limited “true events” series about a man’s reckoning with his female stalker and male abuser, drew in 65 million to Netflix within weeks. Again, the desire to see where crime would land the mentally unstable antagonist Martha (Jessica Gunning), not to mention fervent speculation on the real stalker’s identity, proved a winning recipe for enticing the masses globally. Across the anglophone pond, the third and final season of Sally Wainwright’s phenomena detective drama, Happy Valley, won big at the BAFTAs weeks ago, averaging 11.9 million viewers across its final six episodes on BBC. Happy Valley has also been available in the US since 27 April via Acorn, AMC+, and BBC America.

For reasons both compelling and worrisome, crime sells in our entertainment. Diverse as the most popular TV shows of any season may be, it’s all but customary. The majority revolve around criminal transgressions. So far, 2024 has been no exception – there’s so much scripted malfeasance going around one can hardly keep up with the incessant mystery, murder, and (above all) scheming.

We have already written about Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar’s outstanding comedy/drama The Sympathizer and Mark Protosevich’s Sugar on Apple TV+, but if you still crave some bizarre crime, political crime, or (of course!) 16th-century Tudor whodunnit crime, here are some intriguing shows to catch before we all lose our minds to the new seasons of The Bear and The Boys later in June. 


The Responder: Season 2 – BBC One and Amazon Prime

TV devouts know that despite many tremendous efforts from the US, the UK still retains its title as the place with the highest average drama quality. Even so, the first season of The Responder, a story of a beat cop navigating working-class neighborhoods in Liverpool, stood out with its raw, unrelenting realism. Crisp writing by police officer turned author Tony Schumacher, a Scouse native, and magnetic performances by a never-better Martin Freeman (first responder Chris Carson) and Adelayo Adedayo (first responder Rachel Hargreaves) flesh out the oft-ignored world of the poor and lonely with admirable grit, turning a clichéd narrative into a gripping, unforgettable affair.

While the first season made our cut for the “Best Shows of 2022 You May Have Missed,” in the UK, The Responder was one of the most talked-about dramas that year, launching with nearly ten million viewers in its first 30 days on the BBC iPlayer. Expanding on Carson’s sad, overly complicated life (and work) makes sense.

Season Two of The Responder, which came out on 5 May, is the same brand of bold and moving as the first one. Over six new episodes, the perpetually down-on-his-luck beat cop Carson will get into more trouble on all fronts: his boss won’t let him transfer, his boss’s boss asks him to do some crime on the down low, his mobster friend’s widow tries to pull him into some more crime, as does his vagrant informant. His ex-wife, who is, by the way, dating his work nemesis, is threatening to move away with his young daughter, his shift partner Rachel is giving in to outpours of rage following domestic abuse, and his own abusive elderly father shows no signs of humanity. 

That’s just the beginning, of course, and things will only escalate. Freeman, the dependable everyman cast mostly as a friendly proxy for the audience, gives the performance of a lifetime as a dejected, deeply repressed bizzie with no faith in mankind. His Carson is a clichéd problematic man, a copper with little regard for rules, but The Responder, with its unflinching, piercing baring of the everyday lives of the less fortunate, transcends stereotypes. It delivers knockout drama that concerns itself not with mystery or machoism but with the desperation of the poor bastards fighting tooth and nail to stay afloat in an impoverished, hostile environment. Now is the time to mention that The Responder‘s dark, typically English humor is also fantastic. 

Carson, with his many tribulations and shortcomings, is not another “tortured antihero”. Rather, he is a burned-out working man with no career or life prospects. The political and economic system he is a part of is corrupt and self-serving; his city is falling apart at the seams, and his townsfolk can either resort to violence and incite lawlessness or perish. The Responder has a bleak vision of Liverpool and England today. Still, it is commended for shifting the focus from the melodramatic elites to revealing the gutter where the majority lives. In this respect, while not exactly admirable, Carson emerges as a sympathetic character one will have no trouble identifying with, and Freeman pulls no punches in sketching his (ours) many compounding anxieties. 

The Responder‘s supporting characters are no less layered and impressive. Adelayo Adedayo keeps growing within her role as Hargreaves, Carson’s young partner. She is an enthusiastic woman who thirsts for justice and never seems to find any within her thankless job. A domestic abuse survivor, she is still traumatized by the hurt her carefree firefighter ex caused. That he never suffered the consequences gnaws at her. She buries herself in her work but finds the reality of others even more dour than hers. Hers is a movingly nuanced performance, the horrors of both power and vulnerability oozing from the 35-year-old Londoner. 

Emily Fair and Josh Finan are compulsively watchable as Casey and Marco, childhood friends and indigent slingers; one hopes to break big to escape her penury, the other dreams of leaving everything behind. Faye McKeever, in particular, is superb as Jodie, the foul-mouthed widow of Carson’s best friend (and drug dealer), looking to become a made woman with more than modest means. 

Just like in Season One, The Responder: Season Two remains an intense, cliffhanger-heavy account, the problems of each character growing bizarrely intertwined. But the seemingly random vignettes, standalone scenes, and side quests with the many Scouse residents Carson and Hargreaves encounter will keep you glued to your seat. A loner adopting his deceased neighbor’s dog, a man with early onset dementia whose wife went away to get a breather after a nervous breakdown, and a priest with a drinking problem all offer underrepresented insights into the daily struggles of the common people.

Through this presentation of the tragic powerlessness of main and side characters alike, The Responder hits home. The cops are crooked or strung out, the mobsters are pathetic and small, and the go-getters rarely have a penny in their pocket. England used to hide the uglier aspects of its empire behind the veneers of the posh colonialists. In The Responder, the country is fully exposed as just another circus of inequality and corruption in which the majority can’t even hang on to pipe dreams. 

At times pitch black but never less than gripping, The Responder is a compulsively watchable story of society’s many failures embodied in Liverpool’s most destitute. It will stay with you long after you turn the TV off. 

Shardlake – Disney+ and Hulu

Within life’s rich pageant, there’s nothing quite as enticing as the tapestry of history and our collective relationship to its most prominent narratives. Every nation has its Roman Empire, an event or a period it is obsessed with for many reasons: Americans have Pearl Harbor, the French have their Revolution, Germans have… whatever it is that led us to this point today, and the English have the Tudors. The 16th-century reign of Henry VIII – a known psychopath who abused (or executed) his six wives, consorted with a sleuth of men named Thomas to accomplish his schemes, and separated the Church of England from papal authority – remains an inexhaustible source of awe and inspiration in the kingdom’s popular culture.

Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall inspired a universally acclaimed eponymous 2015 series with the grand master of performance, Mark Rylance, as Thomas Cromwell. But that was way back in 2015, and that show was a quiet, subdued affair of clandestine liaisons and whispers in the dark. This season, Shardlake, based on C. J. Sansom‘s popular historical novels, sweeps in with a rather more boisterous premise. Across four lean, tightly-plotted episodes, you will be playing along with a Tudorian whodunnit with a clerical twist. Bodies will be piling up faster than clues, and emotions will be running high in this deliciously witty, ably cast miniseries about a lawyer turned sleuth trying to expose the murderers attempting to destabilize the regime. 

The year is 1537, and a fresh two-time divorcee, Henry, has just dispensed with Queen Anne Boleyn and the Pope. The next in line are the wealthy monasteries, whose deep pockets ought to be lightened and redistributed to the proverbial people (wink). The mastermind behind this game of charades is Thomas Cromwell (Sean Bean), who dispatches his watchdogs all around, shaking the foundations of the local communities. However, when a king’s representative ends up decapitated at St. Donatus, Cromwell is livid; the mystery kicks off once he enlists lawyer and astute investigator, Matthew Shardlake (Arthur Hughes), to investigate. A moody loner, Shardlake does not appreciate Cromwell sending his errand boy, the jovial” codpiece” Jack Barak (Anthony Boyle), in tow, but this is where much of the delicious drama will stir up. Dark adventures and dirty secrets abound. 

If Shardlake sounds like a run-of-the-mill plot with a period twist, that’s because its main strength isn’t the mystery itself; rather, the show boasts fantastic chemistry between the characters and substitutes uproarious anachronistic quips for highbrow Shakespearean dialogue. Hughes is compelling as the introverted, curmudgeonly Shardlake, a supremely talented young man whose life and relationships have been marked by a physical deformity. An irritable but righteous man of letters, he is an outsider in the game of thrones, advancing his prospects mostly because Cromwell, a tireless ladder-climber himself, took him on. As a lawyer, he is just another arrogant sod, but as a bona fide detective, his boundlessly inquisitive mind comes into its own. 

Shardlake’s donnish mien is perfectly offset by Barak’s playful nonchalance, and Boyle steals the spotlight every chance he gets. The 29-year-old Olivier winner and Tony nominee (for the portrayal of Scorpius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), most recently of the Masters of the Air fame, here mesmerizes as commanding onscreen presence, imbuing Barak with delectable naughtiness but grounding him in the same outsider anxiety that plagues Shardlake. 

The two young men are responsible for much of Shardlake’s fun and tension, but one cannot overlook the eminence grise behind it all, and Sean Bean proves to be the best possible fit for a spiteful, jittery version of Cromwell. An antithesis to Rylance’s impossibly still, collected to the point of frightening performance, Bean paints Cromwell as a mouthy, controlling despot teeming with ambition and resentment. Instead of just ominously disappearing into the shadows, this Cromwell pontificates with dramatic grimaces and enjoys being acknowledged (and feared) as kingmaker. It’s another effortlessly effective turn, amplifying the entertainment value of the plot manifold. 

Expectedly, in Shardlake, the scales of historical accuracy tip heavily in favor of viewer amusement, which is for the best. The show is not without darkness, especially within its bitter titular character. But a period mystery works best when it’s unpretentious, meaning when it overcomes the complex of serving half-cooked and quarter-meaningful history lessons. ˆShardlake is kind to its audience in that regard: it just wants you to enjoy the ride. 

Eric – Netflix

It’s no secret that the Welsh dramatist Abi Morgan is among the most versatile writers in the industry. Over the years, she has penned psychological dramas (Shame), police procedurals (River), legal dramas (The Split), period pieces (The Invisible Woman), political dramas (Suffragette, Brick Lane, The Iron Lady), and even disaster shows (Tsunami: The Aftermath). Overly ambitious and far-reaching in her exploits, Morgan is back with Eric, a six-part miniseries set in 1980s New York that combines most of Morgan’s eclectic interests, for better or worse. 

Directed by Lucy Forbes and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Gaby Hoffmann, Eric is a story of a missing child that swerves between family tragedy, police procedural, surrealist existentialist horror, and historical ethnography. Vincent Anderson (an ever-phenomenal Cumberbatch) is a talented puppeteer and the face behind the fictional beloved children’s program Good Morning Sunshine; however, there is not so much as a veneer of benevolence behind the goofy voices of fluffy dolls. Vincent is an erratic addict, a vitriolic, sadistic son of a bitch who neglects and berates both his wife Cassie (a solid Gaby Hoffmann) and his nine-year-old son Edgar (Ivan Moris Howe). Himself a victim of neglect and abuse and eager to stir shit up wherever he appears just for the hell of it, Vincent is quick to show us that to live or work with him is to be in a perpetual state of anguish. Cassie and his colleagues resent him, and Edgar is afraid of him.

After a particularly nasty instance of fatherly humiliation, Edgar listens to his parents fighting in their opulent, bland, upper-class SoHo home. The following day, he vanishes on his way to school. As the media frenzy erupts, the institutions slide into disarray, and so do petrified Cassie and shell-shocked Vincent. In their frantic pursuit of Edgar, Cassie will lean on detective Michael Ledroit (a haunting McKinley Belcher III), an aspiring black officer juggling all sorts of political and emotional turmoils. On the other hand, Vincent will succumb to obsession and fantasy, hallucinating a seven-foot monster, Eric. The monster is a Yeti-ish creature Edgar drew, hoping to inspire his father to create a new puppet for Good Morning Sunshine. The monster is later revealed to embody more than just the boy’s imagination. Meanwhile, pondering Edgar’s drawings of the monster, Vincent becomes convinced his son will return if he “brings Eric to life”. And so his dreamlike, alcohol and drug-fueled mission begins.

This is Eric‘s basic plot. Over six installments of variedly effective pacing, one is presented with lessons in narcissism, substance addiction, parental abuse, infidelity, grief, familial conflict, and nervous breakdown – and that’s just on the private end. On the public side, the gritty, slightly fantastical, and clichéd 1980s New York, envisioned as a Dickensian backdrop for Scorcesean maneuvers, uncovers stories of racism, homophobia, systemic corruption, institutional neglect, child abuse, the AIDS crisis, and cheap political maneuvering. Crooked white officials, despicable rich white patriarchs, suspicious poor black janitors, vindictive rich black club owners, straight-acting gay men struggling to stay in the closet, ignored grieving black mothers, and many more all seep into the leviathan scope of the series. 

If all this hammy, unwieldy list of topics seems underwhelmingly overwhelming, Eric, despite Morgan’s admirable intentions, often comes across as such. The characters and virtue signaling boxes to tick are too many, leaving a considerable part of the plot generic, sustained on banal, pedestrian dialogue. Some hugely important points, like that of a black mother searching for her missing son but never getting so much as a whiff of justice, end up jumbled and sped over amid the frenzy of narratives. The genre-slaloming and the cramming of virtually endless commentary on American society itself don’t work to the desired effect when all you’ve got is six episodes, not to mention a mystery and a procedural to exposit.

Where Eric does work splendidly is in the intimate reactions of the protagonists to their families and surroundings. Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Vincent is enough to sustain interest over six hours. The powerhouse Brit here partly reprises his role as unhinged wealthy addict Patrick Melrose (the 2018 marvelous miniseries and Edward St Aubyn’s even better literary pentalogy). However, Eric strips the character of most of his charm and relatability. Vincent is an egomaniacal sleazeball with a God complex, but he is anxious to connect with his son and work. While difficult to watch, his pitiful, stuporous pursuit of Edgar tugs hard at the heartstrings. The nagging, fuzzy monster following him around is the least of Vincent’s worries, and Cumberbatch burns through the screen with each manic, (self) flagellating grimace. 

Hoffmann is also impressive as Cassie, the mother gone mad, and Vincent’s antithesis. Warm and caring, she seeks reprieve away from her deranged husband. The subtle, desperate ways she tries to aid the investigation to find Edgar make for heartbreaking TV. On the other side of the procedural, Belcher, as Ledroit, anchors most of Eric’s many storylines with astonishing grace and quiet intensity. As an honest gay black man, Ledroit has little to hope for in terms of a police career in ’80s America. Diminished at every turn, he juggles the search for missing kids with a scheming boss and a terminally ill partner. His restrained rage against malfeasance, racism, and homophobia keeps Eric afloat even when the script gets stuck on boilerplate. Of course, there is also Howe, whose story as Edgar is more than just a case of missing a child; this should not be spoiled. 

Partly inspired by the infamous disappearance of Etan Patz in 1979, Eric offers driven commentary on the many injustices that allow for terror and abuse to take root, but also on how the outcomes in any sphere of life mostly depend on one’s status in society. At times stuffy and undercooked, if you are into excellent performances and truly unexpected plot twists, Eric is still well worth your time.