There is more to a police procedural than catching bad guys

There is more to a police procedural than catching bad guys June 30, 2021

DCI Kate Fleming, DC Steve Arnott, and Superintendent Ted Hastings

Line of Duty (2012 – )

Created by Jed Mercurio

The more I watch police procedurals, the more I think any competent creator or director can make a decent police procedural. But making one that is great, as in timeless, is a high art. There is more to a police procedural than solving a crime and catching bad guys. More than gruesome murders and gathering evidence. In other words, there is more to a great police procedural than just procedure.

Or as the late John D. MacDonald wrote in his introduction to Stephen King’s first short story collection, Night Shift, “Story, dammit, story!”

“Story is something happening to someone you have been led to care about,” Mr. MacDonald wrote. “It can happen in any dimension—physical, mental, spiritual—and in combination of all those dimensions.”

Characters that we have been led to care about is what makes Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty great.

Line of Duty, from the BBC, begins with a botched counterterrorism operation in which an innocent man is killed. High command orders a cover-up, but Detective Inspector Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) refuses to lie in the inquiry. For his troubles, he’s transferred to an anti-corruption unit.


What we call “internal affairs,” the English call “anti-corruption.” Line of Duty is about this anti-corruption unit in the British police and the officers in it. Each season is a self-contained story arc, but by late season 1 or season 2 it becomes clear to the detectives in AC-12 (the anti-corruption unit) that each “bent copper” they investigate is tied to a much broader conspiracy, both in the police force and involving organized crime.

And there is, for American audiences anyway, an additional twist: outside of counter-terrorism units and special tac teams, most British police don’t carry firearms. And even the authorized firearm officers in those units keep their weapons in the armory, signing them out only for special operations.

In most situations, cops are unarmed when they go to a crime scene or chase a suspect. All they’re allowed is a flak jacket.

Steve Arnott’s partner is Detective Inspector Kate Fleming, played by Vicky McClure. They are dogged, meticulous, unflappable. They follow the trail of blood down the darkest alleys. But Steve has a habit of falling for the wrong woman. And Kate’s devotion to her job tears her family apart. As the series progresses, Kate’s and Steve’s personal issues threaten to tear them apart, even as they come to rely on each other more and more.

“Hastings, just like the battle!”

They answer to Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar).

Both Mr. Dunbar and his character are Catholic, and both are from Northern Ireland. One of the most endearing things about Line of Duty is how it takes full advantage of having an Irish Catholic in command of English police officers.

Ted Hastings frequently invokes the Blessed Virgin. “Mother of God,” he’ll exclaim. Or, “In the name of God and his Holy Mother!” He seeks frequent recourse to the Holy Family and, on one occasion, when the situation was particularly bleak, he went full Nativity: “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and the wee donkey!”

As reported in The Tablet, however, Ted Hastings’ outbursts aren’t blasphemy:

They are genuine prayers of despair. Dunbar’s delivery of “In the name of God and his Holy Mother!” correctly gave the line a priestly—or, given the policeman’s rank, almost papal—feel. Another of Ted’s regular entreaties—“God, give me strength!”—expresses actual hope of external assistance.

How to watch

Intrigued? Season 6, which consists of seven episodes, has just finished. Season 1 is five episodes and seasons 2 through 5 are six episodes each. For American audiences, seasons 1 through 4 are free on Amazon Prime. I watched Season 5 on Hulu. All six seasons are on Britbox.

I was hooked immediately and binged all of season 1 in one sitting. I do not recommend this, at least not without wearing compression hose. Settle in, with the Holy family and the wee donkey. You won’t regret it.

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