Criminal Season 2 review: Brilliantly simple, rivetingly complex
Ivan Radford | On 16, Sep 2020
“OK, nice and simple, let me tell you what happened.” That’s the sound of Criminal returning to Netflix and its second season is a bold, confident take on the police procedural.
The show’s first season – read our review here – comprised four anthology series (from France, Spain, Germany and the UK), all united by the same, simple idea: creators George Kay (Killing Eve, The Hour) and Jim Field Smith (Endeavour, The Wrong Mans) take a normal police investigation, throw away the rest of the episode and boil it down to just one, hour-long interrogation in a police station – with the clock running.
Season 2 only continues the UK strand of the show, but that reduced scope is balanced out by scripts that tackle increasingly complicated issues head on. The four hour-long chapters explore abuse, sexism, vigilantism and systemic inequality in the justice system. Writer George Kay has a knack for balancing just enough exposition to follow what’s going on with a twisting narrative structure that repeatedly wrongfoots you – not just in terms of whodunnit, but why they did it and, most importantly, whether they were right to do it.
Director Jim Field Smith, who helmed all of Season 1, is a veteran at keeping things visually interesting even within a single location, jumping between the interview room and the police watching next door in a glowing red observation chamber with pace to match the thought-provoking shift in perspective. Close-ups are judiciously used to examine the cracks in each interviewee’s facade, or to emphasise the deadpan authority of Katherine Kelly’s lead detective, Natalie, or the smiling tics of “good cop” Tony, played with charm and humanity by the always-excellent Lee Ingleby.
The casting, though, is where Criminal really shines, not just finding star names to attract your attention but picking actors with the capability to surprise, shock or maintain a suspicious ambiguity, often undermining their usual screen personas. Sharon Horgan is fantastic as Danielle, a woman who leads a group of activists that target and expose paedophiles – an act that she portrays as both justified and unjustifiably extreme. Moving from charismatic banter to stern silence, she anchors a 60-minute debate that puts her toe-to-toe with Kelly’s stoic quizmaster.
Sophie Okonedo gets a deserved leading role in the opening episode, in which she plays Julia, the wife of a murderer who’s interviewed to give evidence and insight about the possibility of a new victim. She’s timid, upset, calm and composed, often veering between the two in the same sentence, a vulnerable counterpart to the wonderful Rochenda Sandall as Vanessa (returning from Season 1), who nervously heads up questioning but also uses her understated presence to coax more information than expected.
That shifting power dynamic is a hallmark of Criminal’s quickfire exchanges, something that’s explicitly addressed by Sandeep, a murderer played by Big Bang Theory’s Kunal Nayyar, who treats his interrogation as a business negotiation – in which he has information to offer and tries to dictate the conditions under which it’s shared.
The standout of a strong bunch, though, is Kit Harington’s gripping second episode, which sees him shed any trace of John Snow to play a smarmy estate agent accused of raping a younger colleague. He opens his interview with a six-minute, single-take monologue, and that arrogance seeps from every limb, as he points, sighs and shouts his way through 60 intense minutes – and watching Natalie and Tony attempt to dissect his version of events is deliciously fun, as Criminal interrogates the way that things are inherently biased against victims, while also acknowledging the impact that allegations have upon the accused.
All of these standalone discussions are threaded together lightly by the linking scenes, which continue to flesh out the bond between the detectives – a tie that, not unlike a family, ranges from quiet support to louder disagreements, with jokes about tea and biscuits and the spectre of former team members lingering somewhere in the middle. And, underneath it all, Kelly and Ingleby’s will-they-won’t-they subplot continues to unfold with minimal, but charming, heart – a reminder that nice and simple can make for rivetingly complex telly.
Criminal is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.