Blue Lights review: Somehow manages to break new ground for police dramas
Blue Lights may seem like any other police show, but its sense of place and terrific young cast make it worth tuning in for.
I've got to confess that on hearing yet another police drama was set to start airing on BBC One this month, I was more than a little bit skeptical.
Not only is Blue Lights coming off the back of the acclaimed final season of Happy Valley earlier this year, but it's entering a TV landscape currently hugely oversaturated with crime dramas and shows centring on the police.
When The Gold managed to do something unique and surprising recently with a well-worn concept, it felt as though the uninspiringly named Blue Lights was set to fall back into generic cops and robbers storytelling.
Well, I'm very happy to report that while it may not be as innovative or exciting as that series, which blew the doors off expectations surrounding the crime genre in its six episode-run, Blue Lights is still a well-told story with a fresh, interesting angle on policing.
The series stars Siân Brooke as Grace, a former social worker now training as a rookie with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Along with two other rookies played by newcomers Katherine Devlin and Nathan Braniff, she discovers the immense pressure of the job and the extent of the peril that policing in the area brings to their doors.
There are three central reasons this series works, and first and foremost of which is the setting. Belfast isn't just the location for the drama, it's its entire reason for being. This show isn't examining policing as a whole – it's examining policing in a specific time and a specific place.
The series is steeped in the real-world political turbulence of the area and this never lets up. It informs every decision the characters make and every situation they're called out to, giving the drama a wholly unique and fascinating identity.
The sustained focus on a specific crime family and the involvement of the secret services in the area adds an element of intrigue and suspense, while writers Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson have been quick to point out their own background in the area and devotion to authenticity – something which also comes across on screen.
The second reason the series works is the focus on rookies rather than established officers. We've seen plenty of police dramas where a new member of the team joins, making them a fish out of water in an established team dynamic – but they're almost always in a detective role.
The decision to have the central characters be entirely new to the world of policing not only works to seamlessly interweave exposition, a lot of which is necessary due to the specificity of policing in the area, but it also heightens the feeling of danger and personal vulnerability.
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This series is far more focused on the lives and experiences of the police officers themselves than many, and after years of shows about damaged detectives or officers building up to their final shift, the switch-up is refreshing.
The third and final reason for the series being a success is because of the terrific cast. Not only is Brooke perfectly cast as Grace, selling the character's empathy (or potential naivety) with every scene, but the series's real feather in its cap is its talented crop of up-and-coming stars.
Devlin and Braniff both put in assured, impressive performances, as do other young stars such as Hannah McClean. Their relative lack of experience works perfectly to sell the situation, particularly as they work alongside seasoned pros such as Richard Dormer.
They're also able to seamlessly blend into their roles due to a lack of recognisability, an oft-undervalued trait for dramas with young stars. It's rare that a big new drama will take a chance on one new face in a starring role, let alone multiple of them, but the decision pays off.
For police drama devotees, Blue Lights may not be enough to fill the hole left by Happy Valley. It hasn't got the same gripping central through-line of Catherine vs Tommy or the same intimate level of character study due to its wider focus on a number of central characters.
I also can't see it being helped by the binge watch model. This feels like the type of series which needs to build up its audience over time on a linear channel and establish word-of-mouth support, and the cliffhangers aren't bracing enough to make watching the next episode an immediate must.
Still, if viewers are watching on BBC One or happy to space the episodes out over time, this is a thoughtful, authentic and emotionally resonant new drama which justifies its existence straight out of the gate, despite my initial personal misgivings. It's just a shame about that title.
Blue Lights will air on Monday 27th March at 9pm on BBC One and the full series is available now on BBC iPlayer. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to see what's on tonight.
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