First look UK TV review: The Responder
Ivan Radford | On 25, Jan 2022
Martin Freeman is one of the great everymans of his generation, but in recent years he’s also started to toy with that image, from his chillingly polite Richard III on stage to his intimidating corrupt official in TV thriller StartUp. Now, he’s stepping into the world of policing for The Responder, and what’s remarkable isn’t the way he grounds the drama with his relatable presence – it’s how he threatens to destabilise things at every turn as a copper on the very edge of breakdown.
“I’m a shell. The job has ruined me,” Carson admits to his therapist (Elizabeth Berrington) in the show’s opening monologue, and while it could easily be an opportunity for Freeman to demonstrate his serious acting against type – complete with spot-on Liverpool accent – it just serves as a way for Freeman to disappear entirely into the role. What ensues is a scorching, intense dark night of the soul, and you’ll be hard pressed to take your eyes off it.
Carson, we gradually discover, is not only on the brink of collapse but is also caught between impossible forces now beyond his control. He’s friends with Carl (Ian Hart), a vicious gang leader, but that relationship has long since gone beyond friendly, with Carson’s previous compromises leaving him not only corrupt but under Carl’s thumb – and when a stash goes missing, stolen by young Casey (Emily Fairn), the thumb screws start to tighten. That doesn’t help his strained relationship with Carson’s wife, Kate (MyAnna Buring), or dampen the desire of former colleague Ray (Warren Brown) to see Carson brought to justice.
If that sounds like a lot for a programme to juggle, you’re not wrong – and the downside of weaving such a complex tapestry of conflicts and tainted relationships is that it takes a while for The Responder to find its momentum. It’s only after a dizzying first episode that the show introduces Rachel Hargreaves as Adelayo Adedayo, a new recruit who still has her principles intact. Their double-act becomes the engine that drives the show, as she tries to do everything by the book and he refuses to play by the rules – while expecting her to do exactly as she tells her.
The result is a string of tense set pieces, from nightclub confrontations and domestic disputes to car chases and shady meets. Carson describes the life of working on the front line as a first responder as like playing whack-a-mole, and former police officer Tony Schumacher writes the show with a pace that, once going, is unrelenting in its pop-up peril.
What becomes clear as each new mess unfolds is that things are far from that simple, and Schumacher deftly finds a way to draw out the shades beneath the surface, from Adedayo’s blend of resolute ethics and uncertainty to Carson’s well-meaning – in his own way – intentions to do the right thing. The people he keeps seeing time and time again (watch out for David Bradley as Davey, a cheerful old man sleeping rough) are all desperate people on, or underneath, the poverty line, and behind Carson’s burnt-out frustration is the knowledge that there’s a finite amount of help available from social services, and for one to get the help they require would take it away from another who might be in more urgent need.
It’s an impossible dilemma to try and solve night after night, and The Responder’s bleak heart lies not in Carson’s frazzled figure but in the portrait it paints of what happens when a society doesn’t get the right financial and emotional support from the politicians in power – and when people feel they have little option than to continue turning to crime, even when offered a potential escape route. Freeman’s anger, depression and despair emerge not as one man’s personal problem, but as the tragically logical reaction for anyone faced with such endemic deprivation.
The direction emphasises the dark tone with visuals that feel like almost everything takes place at nighttime. One of the few bright sequences, tellingly, is no less poignant, as Carson visits his mum (Rita Tushingham) in a care home. “Everyone matters,” she reminds him. “They really don’t,” comes the reply. State-of-the-nation thrillers have rarely been so grim.
The Responder is available on BBC iPlayer until January 2023.