When Line of Duty was good, it was gripping. But I was left wanting less.
Jed Mercurio's police corruption drama centred on Lennie James as Tony Gates, an essentially good cop whose arrogance and weakness for temptation made him gradually drown in bad things. He was a knotty, textured, fantastic creation.
Twitching with guilt and fear one minute, swaggering with the assurance of knowing he could outwit 99% of his adversaries the next, Gates was in the sweet zone between plausible and predictable. We didn't know if he would escape the noose tightening around him. We didn't know if we wanted him to escape.
James was often filmed close up. There was a flash in his eye when Gates sensed a chance to bluff an opponent into folding. Then increasingly there was rubbing of the brow, dabbing of the lips, baring of the teeth. The fall of DCI Gates played out vividly on James's carefully controlled features. Awards beckon.
The irony of the series was that, just as Gates was subsumed by vice and ill fortune, the brilliance of his character was nearly obscured by the other elements Mercurio threw in. Bum notes, fussy explanations, hang-on-wait-a-minute plot holes and minor characters who were just dead ciphers wasted screen time. The unusual five-episode run time was probably one episode too heavy.
For the first two episodes it was mostly about admin. Mercurio likes to reveal the systemic problems behind gory failings in public services: hospitals in Cardiac Arrest and Bodies, and now the police. Here, though, you could hear him telling you he'd done lots of research. Gates was investigated by his ratty nemesis, Arnott the anti-corruption officer, for the dull internal offence of "laddering" (ie exploiting the fact that his success was measured in charges, not convictions), and there was a WPC whose entire character consisted of filling in forms. Bureaucracy might be annoying for real police officers, but it couldn't power drama.
The script could have cut tutting, form-filling lady altogether, along with Rita, a chubby loser (Mercurio has a thing about fat people) whose only function was to be big and ineffectual. Minor, female characters fared poorly in Line of Duty: Kate Ashfield had a particularly thankless task as Gates's wife, a textbook Woman Who Doesn't Know What's Going On And Won't Listen.
I'd have axed Vicky McClure's character too. Her speechified lines turned a Bafta-winner into a plank. Or at least, I'd have rejigged the story and not said from the outset that Kate Fleming was a mole. Her tepid attempts to entrap Gates would have mattered less and the awkward scenes where she and Arnott flirtily swapped exposition could have gone.
Uncommonly beautiful as McClure is, she wasn't the main draw on Gates's unhinged libido. Gina McKee was his crazy mistress Jackie Laverty, whose shock death served the valuable purpose of making us think anything could happen – later on, Arnott really could have had his fingers amputated by an angry child. But her own story wasn't clear. She was a jittering wreck who was capable of running a dodgy business empire; a needy whiner who was also some sort of irresistible carnal tornado.
Perhaps it's just me. I love Gina McKee in a very pure, wholesome way, so the sound of her character whispering promises of eye-crossingly transgressive sex into Gates's carphone made me anxious and angry. It was a relief when she was suddenly murdered.
Anyway. Tonight's finale was classic Line of Duty. You couldn't turn it off, even though it set up the denouement with a screeching handbrake turn – Gates suddenly leading the investigation having previously been cast out – and even though it piled on unnecessary flourishes. "Dot" Cottan was unmasked as a villain, a surprise crudely set up by some strange dialogue 20 minutes earlier. There were closing, explanatory captions of the kind normally used in true-life dramas, when Gates's exit had already provided a decent ending.
Yet when Gates was trying to extract a (surely inadmissible) confession from Tommy the golfing godfather, I wanted him to succeed. I'd stuck with him through the severe head injury at the end of episode two that magically disappeared the following week. I'd not forgotten the crackling interrogation scene where Arnott had him on the ropes. I'd watched Lennie James cope manfully in the opening episode with every actor's nightmare, the Oral Sex Reaction Shot.
I'd invested. And I just about got my investment back.
Line of Duty is available on BBC iPlayer until 31 July.