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27 August 2022

Have we reached peak TV crime drama?

The identikit approach to making television is beginning to be embarrassing. Exhibit A: ITV’s new series The Suspect.

By Rachel Cooke

Roof top hero or sick killer? Truly, it was hard not to laugh when the question was asked at the end of the first episode of ITV’s sweaty new drama, The Suspect, a series that comes close to seeming like a spoof, so crammed is it with shots of its star, Aidan Turner, looking shifty. (Personally, I can’t see him without thinking of Stephen Collins’ comic, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil.) But this isn’t to say that I’m not enjoying its overheated tone and wild serendipity. One creaky, coincidence-ridden hour in, and I do quite badly want to know if Dr Joe O’Loughlin (Turner), ever applies sweet-smelling oil or some other precious unguent to his luxuriant facial hair – and also, of course, whether he might be involved in the murder of a woman whose body was found in a cemetery where he recently enjoyed an autumnal leaf fight with his wife and daughter.

Sorry about the spoilers. But The Suspect is so crazily overladen with incident – something weird or nasty happens roughly every four minutes – it’s all but impossible not to give the game away (if you want to embark on it in pristine ignorance, don’t read on). Based on a novel by Michael Robotham, it’s like this right from the start, opening as it does with an extended scene in which O’Loughlin, a noted psychologist with a healthy private practice and a series of bestsellers to his name, crawls along a seventh-floor ledge at the hospital where he’s working in order to convince a suicidal teenager not to jump. This is brave; he makes headlines in the next day’s newspapers. But it’s also preposterous. His shakes, we learn, aren’t the result of vertigo. He’s just been diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease.

[See also: House of the Dragon: sex, violence and top notes of incest]

Meanwhile, DI Vincent Ruiz (Shaun Parkes) and DS Riya Devi (Anjli Mohindra) are struggling to identify the aforementioned murder victim, found with 21 cuts to her body. Could she be a sex worker? To find out, Devi attends a meeting of a sex worker collective where – ta-dah! – O’Loughlin just happens to be in attendance (a research project, apparently). This gives her an idea. Has he ever done profiling? Could he come to the morgue to look at their body? The good doctor agrees, and soon he’s in the walk-in fridge, gazing with utmost composure at a corpse, and thinking of one of his more disturbed patients, who is obsessed with the number 21. However, it isn’t, it seems, this man, Bobby Moran, who connects the victim to O’Loughlin… Suffice to say, it isn’t long before his office shredder is powering through some pretty awkward paperwork.

The Suspect, as you will have gathered, is basically a melodrama, and perhaps we need more of those in these unhappy times: as adhesive as glue, but essentially non-serious. And it’s also, in its way, very slick. Adam James, who plays O’Loughlin’s neurologist, Jack Owens, is one of my favourite TV actors (he was last seen as a submarine commander in the BBC’s Vigil), and he’s so smoothly believable here: posh, commanding, a bit smug. It’s also pleasing to see Sian Clifford (aka Fleabag’s sister) bristling away as O’Loughlin’s partner at his practice (he deals in chat, she trades in pills). Parkes is excellent as a cop who’s never surprised by anything. I love the way that when he talks of the “series of coincidences” that have led him to O’Loughlin’s door, he manages to suggest how laughable these words are without actually, er, laughing.

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But I think, nevertheless, we are now at peak TV crime drama. The Suspect follows Ridley, also on ITV, starring Adrian Dunbar of Line of Duty fame as a pensioned off DI, a series that could not be more derivative if it tried; and doubtless James Nesbitt will be along any second in something else involving guns and late nights (his last show was called Suspect; it’s all quite confusing). The identikit approach to commissioning television – “it’s like X or Y with hints of Z, but it’s also highly original” – is beginning to be a bit embarrassing. What do the producers think as yet another transparent screen is hauled out and covered artfully with gruesome photos and chalky arrows? Don’t they know that, at this point, their prize prop induces a Pavlovian response in the form of thoughts of an early night?

[See also: The Rings of Power is bold, beautiful, thrilling television]

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This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine