The Shadow Line: A Penultimate Review

Because my preliminary review of ‘The Shadow Line’ seems to be getting more views that all my other posts combined, I thought I would jump on my own band wagon and write a follow-up review specifically about episodes five and six (which I watched last night) in preparation for the series finale next Thursday.

So; I am still a fan of this series. I mean, when you consider some of the dross that makes it on to television under the rubric of ‘British Drama’, then ‘The Shadow Line’ is really very good. Compare it with something like ‘The Bill’ for example! That was what I thought of when I thought of British police TV show before ‘The Shadow Line’ (I admit I have never seen Silent Witness; though I served tea for the post-production of the last ever one. I would tentatively say that The Shadow Line has much more in common with – and borrows much more from – Silent Witness than it does from the likes of The Wire).

Has The Shadow Line been a perfect series? Absolutely not. The dialogue is still frequently clunky in its attempt to be ‘overly clever’ whilst simultaneously explaining what is going on. Because the cast of characters is so big, certain characters tend to fall out of memory, only to be brought back in a couple of episodes later, leaving you to think “oh yeah, where has he been”. This happened earlier on with Ecclestone’s character. It has happened in the last two episodes with Spall’s manic gangster-teetering-on-the-edge-of-Guy-Ritchian-mockney-cartoon-character; where has he gone in all of this? His main rival – the man we were led to believe killed Harvey Wratten (remember this? The actual premise of the whole show, that has been almost completely forgotten) – Bob Harris has been killed, and Jay Wratten didn’t even pop his head up to comment.

A similar thing happened in episodes six with Glickman’s girlfriend. Up until now, she had been the girlfriend-in-mourning; a bit-player in Bede’s side-story of dealing with his wife with Alzheimer’s (another character gone missing). Suddenly in episode six, it turns out she is some sort of silent assassin; killing the man she professed to love with no apparent motive. No sooner has this bombshell been dropped then she is killed herself.

One other character I would point to is the bent cop – the one shown in the very first scene of episode one leering over Harvey Wratten’s corpse. With the underlying subtext (often shouted at the audience from ‘between the lines’) of ‘cops and robbers think they live in two separate worlds, but in fact there is a thin ‘shadow line’ between them’ having to be clunkily written into dialogue; with this character of the bent cop (for my money, the best actor in the whole thing) they could have shown that much more succinctly, rather than insisting on repeatedly saying it.

All that said, I am still compelled to watch this show, mainly because it is still exciting and, to an extent, unpredictable. The show is bold in killing off main characters mercilessly. And it has thrown a good number of curve balls. The killing of Gabriel’s young son was really quite shocking, and it demonstrated the ethos of ‘Original British Drama’ (as a spate of BBC programmes are labelling themselves at the moment); uncompromising, prepared to go to ‘dark places’ in telling a story, prepared to spend money on good production.

But once again, and forgive me if I sound like a broken record, the time frame given to tell this complex and intriguing story is too short by half. The result is that engaging story lines are rushed through, characters in a large cast are left out, and the little tangential side-stories are left as unsatisfying loose-ends. With more space, all of these things could be given so much more space to breathe. A perfect example would be Glickman. When he was eventually shown living in Ireland, he comes across as some sort of ‘man-with-a-thousand-voices’, able to wander the world with no-one noticing. The next episode, he is killed. (I can’t imagine that the old fella he runs the clock shop in Dublin with hadn’t said to him once in the eighteen years he had been coming there “you don’t half have a ropey Irish accent there boss, to be sure”).

I know that the counter argument will be that there is not enough money to do this, or that attention spans wouldn’t stretch over fourteen weeks, or that British dramas are traditionally split up into smaller series. Well, I don’t want to watch another series of this programme. With many of the main characters killed off, they would inevitable have Gabriel tackling a new case, and there would be little continuation. As for the attention spans, I’m sure enough people would switch on week after week. If the aim is to make intelligent drama, then an intelligence in the audience should be assumed. As for money, there would be a number of ways around this, spreading out production costs (even making ‘cheaper’ episodes). Psychoville did this excellently in series 1, having a whole episode with just three characters set in one room. I could easily imagine a whole episode of Gabriel in an interview room, interrogating a suspect. The script would have to be tight, but the production cost would be minimal. It would also afford some really needed character development, and would make the ostensible ‘dramatic’ moments where Gabriel has lost his rag and started shouting so much more dramatic.

But I’ll still watch the concluding episode, and will probably enjoy it, with one eye on other examples of Original British Drama (such as ‘Luther’; another police drama screaming out for comparisons to The Wire).

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