“Tell us what happened.” Those four simple words at the heart of what makes Netflix’s new police series, Criminal, so effective. The procedural drama boils down what most cop shows would wade through over an hour or two into a single conversation in a single location that unfolds almost in real-time.
It’s a bold move and one that mostly pays off. After all, procedural crime dramas are one of the staples of the small screen, and Netflix hasn’t had its own until now. By taking a boild-down approach, it allows the streaming giant’s tense creation to stand out from the pack, tapping less into Law & Order or Midsomer Murders and more into the claustrophobic one-room exchanges that have helped make Line of Duty such a thrilling hit. And yet, while the restricted geography might seem cheap or theatrical, it also enables Netflix to expand its ambitions: the show uses the same set to span four different countries, with different stories and casts (from France, Germany, Spain and the UK) recording three episodes each in their own languages. It’s not just crime that’s universal, but also the tension of a ticking clock counting down to a case being solved.
George Kay (Killing Eve, The Hour) and Jim Field Smith (Endeavour, The Wrong Mans) are the creators behind the whole endeavour, and they establish a consistent, compelling format for each entry in their interrogation anthology: the police officers have an hour to secure a confession before their suspect walks, something they have to juggle with outside pressures, internal politics and a sprinkling of personal troubles.
It goes without saying that the result requires something of an exposition dump, as the scripts race to condense all the relevant details into a blink-and-you’ll-miss it runtime. But the show has also found the best possible actors to sell that balance of required information and emotional reactions, giving each guest star a showcase for their versatility.
In the UK, David Tennant shines as a dad accused of having something to do with his daughter’s fate, moving from anger and outrage to blank-faced “no comments” often within the same breath. He delivers a tour de force of doing a lot with a little, and his ability to convey inner conflict with just a stare at the camera is gripping. Hayley Atwell, almost unrecognisable, is wonderful as a woman trying to ask for our sympathy and understanding, bringing a convincing physicality to such a low-key setting. Capping off the British trilogy is Home’s breakthrough star Youssef Kerkour, who manages to be likeable and suspicious simultaneously, as he’s grilled on the whereabouts of a suspicious truck.
The international episodes offer the same to their own stars, from Sara Giraudeau to Carmen Machi. France gives us a fascinating glimpse of a bombing survivor with a story that doesn’t add up, while Spain has fun toying with notions of love and compassion as one woman seems to care more for her dog than anyone else. Everything from gender to race is teased out in the back-and-forths and barbs that fly, and it’s fun just to watch the power balances shift: the actor Kevin Eldon makes things personal as one suspect’s lawyer, while one German episode brilliantly sees the defendant’s legal counsel refuse to sit in the place they’re meant to.
Moments like that reveal just how clever the staging and direction is – helmers include Oliver Hirschbiegel – as the episodes cut from cameras above and below the table, in front of and behind suspects, and, most effectively of all, inside and out of the adjacent room hidden by a two-mirror. Some of the most nailbiting moments are when that barrier is removed entirely, so the people being questioned can see the full team they’re up against, illuminated ominously by a red light.
All of this wouldn’t work, though, without a strong recurring ensemble to hold it together. In the UK, Katherine Kelly, Lee Ingleby and Nicholas Pinnock anchor an excellent team of believable colleagues, from the stern boss and the glowering deputy willing to lie to get suspects on side to the nervous one who wants to ask the gaffer out once it’s all wrapped up. Each episode smartly lets them rotate who’s in the quizzing chair, so the others can interact, comment, predict and worry on the other side of that mirror, debating whether to interrupt or trust their colleague to do the job in hand. You can often tell all you need from the way Pinnock stares at someone, the way Ingleby holds his shoulders or the way Kelly chooses to answer a question, and the camera makes sure it captures every tiny decision.
It’s an economical but engaging device, and the sheer range of workplace rifts that open up keeps things feeling novel even after you’ve binge-watched three episodes in a row. And, with scripts that manage to insert surprising twists into the well-paced unravelling of even the most airtight witness statements, make no mistake: you’ll be guilty of bingeing the lot in no time at all. As an experimental take on a familiar genre, Criminal certainly gets away with it.
Criminal is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.