Paul Abbott said at the launch of his new Channel 4 series No Offence, that he’d had to write it “dead straight to make it dead funny”. He loved cop shows, and he loved comedy but the two didn’t naturally fit together – there’s not all that much obvious hilarity in front-line policing. So he forced the two together by writing a “very, very deadpan, jet black comedy cop show”.
And it’s worked beautifully. Centred around a group of flawed, slightly anarchic police officers in Manchester who are more vigilantes than protocol-abiding coppers, the eight-episode series has gallows humour and lots of dark moments but great warmth and humanity too. It’s got the ballsy, close-to-the-bone subject matter of Abbott’s iconic Shameless, but with the nail-biting drama of State of Play, his 2003 political thriller starring John Simm and David Morrissey.
Abbott wanted a funny cop show that would “abduct the crime-addicted audience of The Bill”, and in a TV world swarming with crime dramas, it’s impressive that he’s created one that feels entirely new.
But then, with The Thick of It’s Joanna Scanlan in the lead as Detective Viv Deering, it’s hard to imagine it being a dull watch. Deering is straight-talking, sexually charged, eagle-eyed and maternal all at the same time. In the first episode she casually squirts vaginal deodorant in front of her colleagues, but realises with a grimace that she’s actually mistaken it for minty-fresh mouth spray, and vice versa, then charges off in her red heels to solve a murder.
She’s the kind of not-to-be-messed with woman we’re slowly seeing more of on TV, rather like Raised by Wolves’ Della or Catastrophe’s Sharon. Seriously tough, confident and capable, but believably human and vulnerable with it. Abbott said he wanted to portray the almost familial relationships that are often established in police departments, with Deering as the matriarch. Her copper offspring are played wonderfully by Harper’s Island’s Elaine Cassidy, as the dedicated DC Dinah Kowalska, and Utopia’s Alexandra Roach as as the nervous but talented DS Joy Frears.
One of the best characters of all is Friday Night Dinner’s Paul Ritter as Randolph Miller, the truly bizarre, often hungover resident criminal forensics expert who, in an effort to cheer up Dinah, coaxes her to come to the morgue to get a good look at a particularly grotesque corpse. He creates some of the funniest moments in the show.
As with the iconic Shameless, which Abbott said he “smells” into all his new projects, No Offence tackles subjects that few other shows would dare to. In the first episode, the detectives work out that there’s a killer with a fetish for women with Downs Syndrome. Most writers, I imagine, would run a mile from a plotline that needs to be handled so carefully.
Yet in true Abbott style, he wrote it precisely because it sounded like such a tricky plot to pull off. “I’m born on tantrums,” said Abbott. “It was the hardest one to write. We researched the condition extremely well and show it how it’s not usually shown on TV.”
So although there are some laugh-out-loud moments (like when Deering sings and pees for what seems like an eternity), No Offence has at its core a dark story which is entertaining, but also really unsettling. Abbott said that his intention was to make people laugh, and then “wipe that smile off your face”.
And that’s why No Offence is a thrilling piece of TV. It never lets you get too comfortable, lurching from gentle humour to shocking brutality in mere seconds. In fact, watching No Offence is a bit like life: sometimes you just don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
No Offence begins on Tuesday 5th May at 9pm on Channel 4