Almost a decade into the streaming revolution it’s remarkable that almost 10 million people interrupted their (admittedly locked down) Sunday evenings to settle in to watch the latest series of Jed Mercurio’s police corruption drama Line of Duty — more than double those who tuned into the once unsurpassable Christmas Day soap specials. It’s a testament both to Mercurio’s skill in crafting twist-laden event TV and the perennial appeal of the police procedural.
Why do we love cop shows so much? There’s the appeal of the macabre. Rubbernecking at a real crime scene may be frowned upon — but poring over livor mortis, strangulation marks, and puncture wounds from your sitting room is significantly less uncouth.
A less grisly way of putting it though is that the stakes are always high — often as high as they could be in a drama that aspires to realism. Mistakes in Line Duty have the most brutal consequences — but for people who, unlike international gangsters or superheroes, look relatively like us.
Then there’s the thrill of the whodunnit, or its close cousin, the whydunnit, something central to Line of Duty — which has strung out the puzzle of the identity of ‘H’ — a high-level corrupt officer or official — for several seasons now.
Cold case of the week dramas like longrunning behemoth Silent Witness or its grittier emulator Waking the Dead give us a seemingly impenetrable and, in their best episodes, an ingenious and usually gruesome whodunnit that’s wrapped up in a more easily digestible two hours. Sherlock, for all its bells, whistles and swooning Cumberbatchelorism, adheres to a similar formula.
That doesn’t explain all of the police procedural’s appeal though — some shows, like Cracker, and Prime Suspect (the clue is in the name) often made a point of revealing the killer or potential ones early. Others make it blindingly obvious who it is at an early stage, through casting if nothing else — even while our protagonists beaver away at the case.
Instead it’s the thrill of the chase alongside characters we like. The likes of Morse, A Touch of Frost, Scott & Bailey and New Tricks may seem to have little in common. Three focus on cantankerous old codgers showing youngsters how it’s done, the…