Elevated immensely by the efforts of stars Cush Jumbo and Peter Capaldi, the timely British police procedural drama Criminal Record ends up having slightly more positives than negatives. While the material from series creator Paul Rutman (Vera, Next of Kin) comes with a lot of thoughtful musings on race and policing, Criminal Record sometimes dances close to eye-rolling didacticism and pandering. It’s also tremendously overstuffed and in need of excising several threads that unnecessarily underline the themes already in play while only adding running time and a healthy dose of obvious emotional manipulation. But when the material and the performances propelling it are reaching their full potential, Criminal Record is able to get the blood pumping and the mind racing. I was always on the fence as to whether Criminal Record was actually good or not, but whenever I think back on the visual stylishness of the show and the work of its cast, there’s just enough to like to warrant a light recommendation.
An emergency call centre in London gets a frantic, unusual call. A woman has called to report an incident of domestic violence. She refuses to give up her identity, and the ongoing escalation of the situation causes the call to end abruptly, but not before the caller states that her boyfriend has claimed responsibility for a murder that took place almost a decade ago. It’s a curious statement, because the crime involved was already deemed solved by the investigating detective, Chief Inspector Daniel Hegarty (Capaldi), and a man named Errol Mathis (Tom Moutchi) has been convicted and sentenced. Detective Sergeant June Lenker (Jumbo) is tasked with tracking down the mystery caller and seeing if the person is okay, but quickly she becomes infatuated with investigating the possibility that an innocent man is spending time in prison for a murder they didn’t commit. Lenker seeks out Hegarty for answers, but the highly decorated, well connected, and virtually untouchable old timer does everything in his power to stymie, sabotage, and hinder his younger colleague’s investigation in a bid to solidify his legacy and secure his pension. Their rivalry turns intensely personal, especially once Lenker discovers elements of Hegarty’s life and those of his former partners (Charlie Creed-Miles and Shaun Dooley) that they would prefer to keep hidden.
Criminal Record gets off to a good start, with a crackerjack core idea: a black female detective with a lot of personal problems unfolding at home and a secretive, corrupt, and potentially racist white veteran cop with festering demons in their closet go toe-to-toe over a long dormant case with incendiary social implications. And whenever Rutman and his creative team allow Jumbo and Capaldi the chance to verbally spar with one another, Criminal Record explodes off the screen. The sheer joy in watching the dramatic battle between these two performers is the biggest jewel in the series’ crown, next to the series’ consistently tight direction and visuals. Both excel at playing unwavering, perpetually stressed out forces of nature that are willing to do anything to maintain their psychological or professional edge over their adversary, and the game of oneupmanship that plays out is what propels the more interesting elements of Rutman’s mystery.
Tackling the thorny issue of racial profiling within the police department – including from within when dealing with interactions between fellow officers – serves as a ripe backdrop for a mystery such as this, but Criminal Record approaches its thematic topics from a less that subtle and nuanced direction. Some of the series’ more on-the-nose moments – and there are almost too many to list – dance very closely to the same sort of queasy earnestness that plagued one of everyone’s least favourite Oscar best picture winners, Crash. A lot of the bigger blows are softened by Rutman’s need to lean into easily understood melodrama and genre cliches in a bid to not push the audience too far into uncomfortable conversations.
The longer Criminal Record drags itself out – ending up at least two or three episodes longer than is advisable – the less it feels like an idealogical thriller and more like a messy domestic soap opera. Subplots involving the accused killer’s adult stepson (Rasaq Kukoyi) and his girlfriend (Maisie Ayres) ends up being little more than a lengthy set-up for a big reveal that’s more contrived and convenient than novel. The relationship Lenker has with her husband (Stephen Capbell Moore) and son (Jordan A. Nash) isn’t adding much on a dramatic or thematic level that isn’t already inherent in the core mystery. And too much time is spent teasing what’s happening in Hegarty’s past and current personal life that by the time all the cards are on the table, those revelations come across as curiously underwhelming. The only subplots that really work here and add anything back into the story are Hegarty’s unending protection and enabling of his equally problematic buddies (one of whom is a vehemently racist and sexist shut-in suffering from a long term ailment), and the efforts of Mathis’ mother (Cathy Tyson) and lawyer (Aysha Kala) to get his conviction overturned. Beyond those threads and the core rivalry, there’s a lot of unnecessary filler that tries to humanize the characters, but does so in the hokiest of ways.
The more disappointing elements of Criminal Record have nothing to do with what’s being said, and almost everything to do with how these topics are being presented. Jumbo does an exceptional job of playing out her character’s psychological torment, while making the viewer sometimes question her motivations. While she’s fighting for marginalized voices and women to be heard in a male dominated power structure, one always wonders if Lenker is developing an unhealthy obsession or if she’s not being allowed to express and assert herself in the same manner as her white colleagues. Interracial relationships (both romantic and professional) are examined, and there’s a lot of talk about unconscious biases and racist assumptions that are intelligently crafted and performed. The influence of the far right on the nature of policing gets broached, and throughout there’s a running condemnation of the kind of privilege that being white, male, and powerful affords those at the highest levels of influence, all of which can be seen in Capaldi’s sinewy, layered performance of a character that’s 90% villain and 10% righteous police officer. All of these topics are interesting and worthy of exploration, but they’re fighting amid a sea of messy plot threads and non-twists that muddy the waters.
But that natural oil and water chemistry between Jumbo and Capaldi will leave most viewers hooked long enough to see where Criminal Record is heading in the long term. They sell Rutman’s concept with outstanding psychological dexterity, physicality, and dramatic tension. Without them, Criminal Record would barely be passable. But with their input, the series manages to be good in spite of some regrettable missteps.
The first two episodes of Criminal Record premiere on Apple TV+ on Friday, January 12, 2024, with a new episode premiering every Friday thereafter until February 23.
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