Better review: A crime thriller worth sticking with for its leads alone
You could cut the tension in this new slow-burning BBC thriller with a knife, but at this point, it could be a little anti-climactic.
Only the first and second episodes were made available for review.
When the first scene of Better unfolds, you'd be forgiven for thinking you've switched on the wrong show – but that's all part of the intriguing appeal of that first episode.
You'll undoubtedly go into the new BBC drama thinking it's going to be your archetypal crime thriller – fast car chases, close calls, mass murderers, corrupt officers and all. While it does have the latter, this series is actually more of a slow-burning character study about redemption. About being better, as per the show's title.
That first episode kicks off with Lou (Leila Farzad) holding court at a friendly drinks do, cracking jokes and trying to make her husband feel comfortable, even though she has to dash off after receiving a mysterious phone call. All very nice, right?
But she halts the evening to drive to a non-descript building, donning an all-black outfit and backpack, to carry out a task that we currently don't know anything about. There's even a blood-covered dead body laying waiting for her.
It's only when her car is pulled over after the fact that you realise that she's actually a high-ranking police officer.
While we follow a corrupt police officer as our lead, this isn't a series about corruption, à la Line of Duty. Rather, it's a look into good vs evil and what could possibly drive someone to make these morally questionable decisions, with the result being the fact that you'll never quite know who to side with throughout these five episodes.
There's undoubtedly a lot still to be explored in the vein of police corruption on TV but instead, this series focuses on Lou in a vacuum of her own, bypassing procedural drama formats and interrogating our characters' mindsets instead.
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Because of the lack of trust in our main character, though, it's easy to feel a sense of detachment when it comes to Lou.
When her son is rushed to hospital and contracts bacterial meningitis, her life is harshly put into perspective. It's sad that it takes such a tragic event to make the audience empathise with her but suddenly the motivations for her wanting a better life for her family are put on display. So too are the motivations for wanting to step away from this life in order to appropriately care for her partner and child.
But that sense of detachment is something that's hard to shake when watching. Because of everyone's pitfalls, it's easy to float around and watch this series always wondering whether the characters on display are actually knowable or not. Of course, when we lack connection with our on-screen characters, it can make a series like this feel slightly uncomfortable.
In that first episode, we see Lou driven to Col's (Andrew Buchan) mansion for a dinner party, complete with pre-arrival security checks. Of course, this is our first time meeting the enigmatic co-lead in this series and he's... nice. He's warm, welcoming, funny and you wouldn't immediately think he's a notorious crime boss capable of truly awful acts. Oh the beauty of first impressions.
However, it's in Farzad and Buchan's first scene together that you can easily spy the magic that will propel this series forward. Sharing a cigarette in Col's back garden, they could be mistaken for long-lost siblings, sharing a moment away from the party and cracking jokes.
The pair excel at their effortless on-screen dynamic and Better gives us a refreshing tale of platonic friendship, as opposed to a steamy love affair in the subplot of this drama. There aren't any lingering background questions of "Will they? Won't they?". Instead, we're witnessing two people who know each other so well that you often wonder how their significant others aren't jealous of their chemistry.
But all of the tension of a close relationship is undoubtedly there – they trust one another with their lives but at the same time, are increasingly suspicious of each other. It's like they're constantly circling each other, weighing up whether the other can be trusted and never figuring out if they can.
It's this unknowable sense of what's coming next that's familiar territory in thrillers like this one, except this time round, the pressure comes from interpersonal relationships in the series, rather than any major action-packed crime-fighting moment.
It's a tense love affair of sorts and while it's endearing, it's really Farzad's characterisation as Lou that is the reason this series is worth watching. She's our complicated, flawed lead character who is continually placed in this space of denial, regret and ignorance. That's what makes her human, really. She's not a perfect character but Farzad (who many will recognise from I Hate Suzie) succeeds in making Lou initially humorous, clever, career-driven and somewhat relatable.
The leads in this drama are the main reason to persevere with it. The first couple of episodes may feel like a slow-going feat at times, with no real action on display. We get a great amount of context but there's the inevitable sense that we're always building up to something, patiently waiting for a showdown. There's the feeling that once we break through these foundational episodes, the plot will really get moving.
But unfortunately, after many viewers have recently been treated to the quick wit and pace of shows like Happy Valley, crime drama fans may have to fasten their seatbelts and bide their time with this five-parter. What can we say, we're impatient.
While the series is one you're silently vying to excel, it is one that is intriguingly familiar, and broaches themes of family, love, loss, loyalty and success that will surprisingly reflect many people's lives. It's in no small part down to the clever writing of Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent (Humans, Spooks).
The five-parter thankfully seems like it really gets going as we near the end of episode 2 and while it's anyone's guess as to how this saga will end, something tells us that family tragedies often only end in one way, meaning this series has all the foundations for a pretty epic finale.
Better continues on Monday 20th February at 9pm on BBC One, with all episodes available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.