He’s been tortured by organised criminals. He’s seen friends and colleagues murdered. He’s suffered a life-changing back injury and has a troubling penchant for sleeping with witnesses to crimes he’s investigating. These are the credentials of a person who should be at least a little bit interesting.
And yet these are the credentials of DI Steve Arnott, one of the three main characters of the BBC’s Line of Duty and a man who is destined to enter the annals of history as one of the most extraordinarily boring people ever to grace our screens. Somehow, despite living what is by most people’s reckoning an exciting professional life, his dullness is so innate and powerful that it negates these experiences. He is a black hole of a man: all defining details are simply sucked into his dark core of anti-character.
It does sometimes happen that the main person in a TV show is the least interesting, the solid centre around which the rest of the characters orbit. Michael Bluth in Arrested Development, Piper Chapman in Orange is the New Black, Ted Mosby in How I Met Your Mother. None of these are on the scale of a Steve Arnott, though. We know nothing about him bar the most perfunctory details. He is a man, he’s a police officer, and his accent suggests he’s from somewhere near London. He is physically forgettable, with his Lego man haircut and dismal fashion choices. At work, his waistcoat makes him look like a perpetual plus one at a wedding. Off-duty, he sips a bottled Peroni in the polo shirt, jeans and shoes of a Top Gear studio audience member. He’s a little grumpy, but not enough to put him squarely in the bracket of classic, jaded TV policemen – hard-boiled only in the eggiest sense: inoffensive but chronically lacking in flavour.
In the current sixth season of Line of Duty, his reluctance to seek help for a painkiller addiction gives us a bit more to work with, but it feels like too little too late. Steve is, by now, canonically boring. And although he sleeps around, which should be interesting, the way his promiscuity manifests is dull: a drab fumble here, a dreary dinner there. Even his flirting is tedious, consisting only of letting a smile play across his lips whilst engaging in the type of conversation that wouldn’t be out of place at a flat viewing. The fact that every woman he’s involved with is someone he met at work also suggests he has no life outside work to speak of. It’s difficult to see what all these women see in him. “Who is Steve Arnott?” is a mystery just mysterious enough that it’s possible for viewers to find him sort of sexy, but like thinking that a statue or a faded picture in the windows of a barber is hot, there’s not enough suggestion of a real human being here to make him genuinely attractive.
I have my suspicions about the kind of guy Steve is. He’s the kind of guy who has ordered the same takeaway to eat in front of the football every Sunday for a decade. A guy who asks for a new belt for Christmas. A guy who would love to go to Abu Dhabi one day for the Grand Prix but who drives one of the sportier-looking Volvos because it’s reliable and gives great mileage. A guy who went to an escape room once and actually enjoyed it more than he thought he would. A guy who finds these new craft beers a bit much, flavour-wise. Shreddies for breakfast, no gherkins in his Big Mac. A guy who uses the cry laugh emoji, but doesn’t crack any jokes.
But all of this is idle speculation. There’s simply nothing in the show to go on. What are his hopes, his dreams? What paths untrodden stretch out before Steve late at night, as he lies in a bedroom that could belong in any Airbnb in the United Kingdom? His absolutely anonymous flat, with nothing more characterful inside it than a pot of Vegemite on the counter, does admittedly make me think that young Steve might have spent some time in Australia. But the very fact that I am sitting trying to decide whether a blurry glimpse of yeast extract tells me something about this man after six series should indicate just how desperately barren his personality is.
Is his personality vacuum meant to deflect our attention from the ultimate twist? Is Steve “H” – the final kingpin of corruption in the police? I don’t think so, somehow. As much as it is tempting to try to wring intrigue out of this wet flannel of a man, I think the sad truth is that Steve is just Steve: nothing more, nothing less.