All too often these days on British television, crime dramas and murder mysteries insist on spoon-feeding the viewer the facts, before arriving at a nicely wrapped-up conclusion, laden with exposition as to whodunnit, whydunnit and how. Thankfully, 'The Shadow Line' is not one of those programmes, but in a good way. Namely, it shows, but doesn't tell. It doesn't insult your intelligence, a rarity in TV these days.
The lengthy opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the series. Two police officers inspecting a car, one dead body inside. The body is Harvey Wratten's, an infamous underworld drug baron recently released from prison after a mysterious and unexpected royal pardon. It soon becomes clear that this is far more than just a gangland assassination, and that there may or may not have been police involvement. Investigating is DI Jonah Gabriel, a disillusioned cop just returned to the force, recovering from an attempt on his life that left him with a bullet in his brain and a serious case of amnesia. We follow Gabriel as he delves into Wratten's murder and the drug-trafficking scene, uncovering far more than he would like.
Make no mistake: this is a pitch-dark, almost noir-ish crime drama, about morally compromised characters and the lengths that they will go to to survive. There have been (unrealistic) comparisons made to 'The Wire' and 'The Killing', but you'll enjoy it a lot more if you just take it for what it is.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is brilliantly understated as Gabriel, struggling to juggle his personal and professional lives, which sometimes coincide as a result of his amnesia. Praise also for Christopher Eccleston as Bede, essentially the underworld foil for Gabriel, trying to keep a business afloat while watching his wife rapidly succumb to Alzheimer's. Stephen Rea as the enigmatic Gatehouse is mesmerising and utterly chilling to watch. His character moves among the players with a quiet ferocity, proving himself a force of nature with his clinical and lethal temperament. His 'face-off' with Glickman (Sir Antony Sher) was for me one of the most compelling and thrilling scenes in the whole series. Both performances were nothing short of electrifying.
There are a few things that may detract from the overall experience for some. You do get a few inane and/or unnecessary lines of dialogue here and there, and no doubt people will complain that there isn't really any character that you can 'root for', but then they'd be missing the point. The series has also been described as a 'crime thriller', but in all honesty it's much more of an ensemble character study, and is far too slow-burn to be a thriller, at least in the early episodes. This is much more a case of false advertising, though, than any fault with the series itself. That's not to imply that the series is slow enough to be dull - far from it. Indeed, the final few episodes are absolutely thrilling to watch, as Gabriel gets closer and closer to the heart of the conspiracy.
A word about the finale, which seems to have divided opinion. The reveal of the purpose behind the conspiracy does tie into the series' underlying thought-provoking themes of greed, control and corruption, but for some the ending was overwrought, self-indulgent, and contained one too many telegraphed twists. Personally, I share none of these complaints. I was glued to my seat the entire time, and by the time the credits rolled I felt I had watched something greatly entertaining. I can't ask for more.
For a BBC drama, this is cerebral, ambitious, intelligent television. Is it a trendsetter? Probably not, but it's pleasing to see the Beeb trying something different for a change. Without a doubt, this is the finest drama I've ever seen the BBC produce, and, like others have said already, because of its mature and unrelenting nature The Shadow Line would not look out of place on a channel such as HBO. Overall, it's rewarding, engaging entertainment and if you like that then you'll love this.