Last Sunday, around 10.4 million Americans watched the Oscars, making it the least-watched Academy Awards ceremony ever. A few hours earlier, 10.9 million people watched the penultimate episode of Line of Duty, making it the UK’s most-watched drama since 2008. The reasons for the sudden lack of interest in Hollywood stars in fancy outfits are almost certainly covid-specific, but there is nonetheless something lovely about the idea of a future in which Adrian Dunbar saying “mother of god” a lot is a bigger deal than, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And the rise of Jed Mercurio’s police drama over the last nine years has been inexorable. Line of Duty debuted as a little-heralded five-part series on BBC Two, with Lennie James as the ostensible star and the men and woman of the police anti-corruption unit AC-12 as his apparent foil. (At risk of spoilers for something that happened nine years ago, the explanation for why the show is called Line of Duty and the explanation for why Lennie James isn’t in it any more are the exactly the same.)
Around 3.8 million people watched that first series – not bad, but hardly record breaking. Then word of mouth kicked in. I watched the second series knowing nothing of the first, because people kept talking about it on Twitter; two episodes in I ran out and bought the first lot on DVD, so that I could work out what was going on, and had devoured it before episode three. By the third series, the show was big enough to get interviews with its latest star Danny Mays slapped across the papers, which fairly swiftly came to seem pretty funny. By the fourth it was big enough to transfer to BBC One, and the ratings got even bigger.
And four years later, here we are: the leader of the opposition is awkwardly making jokes about requiring the help of Ted Hastings and AC-12 to investigate the Prime Minister. (“A barefaced liar promoted to our highest office,” Hastings recently complained of chief constable Philip Osborne and, by implication, Boris Johnson.) You may want the earth to open up and swallow you for that, but you can’t deny the show’s cultural impact.
So why has Line of Duty touched a nerve? Partly, I think, it’s benefited from timing. Since 2012, streaming has become a thing, and the BBC has taken to chucking large chunks of its back catalogue on iPlayer. Those who’ve come to the show late no longer need worry that they’ve missed something: they can catch up, and probably spot details those who watched it at the time have long forgotten.
Timing has helped the show in another way, too. “Second screening” is a nauseating phrase referring to the habit of watching something while talking about it on social media, turning it into a shared, communal experience. Such habits often attach to sports or competitive baking or even, god help us, the politics shows, but it’s relatively rare they accompany scripted TV. Line of Duty, with its plot twists and its tendency for things that happened years ago to suddenly become relevant once again, feels perfect for the sort of unhinged theorising on which second screening thrives. What’s more, if you watch the show and you’re on social media, you sort of have to watch it live: no way on god’s green earth are you avoiding spoilers otherwise.
Oh – and of course, you really want to know what’s happened. The show specialises in rug-pulling twists and edge-of-the-seat action sequences (“URGENT EXIT REQUIRED”) that make you want to watch as soon as possible. Most impressive of all, though, is how much tension the show gets out of its interrogation scenes, which, let’s be clear about this, consist almost entirely of people sat at a table spouting jargon at each other. So central have these scenes become to the show’s allure that last week the BBC announced the latest episode would feature the longest one yet – 29 minutes! – as some kind of selling point. It’s hard to look at Netflix’s mini-franchise Criminal without suspecting the pitch its creators came up with was “the best and cheapest bit of Line of Duty, and literally nothing else”.
There’s one more reason the show may have struck a nerve: it’s about corruption. Not just, as once seemed plausible, individual rotten apples or even rotten units: the corruption it shows is something bigger, more systemic and more insidious, and you can never be quite sure where it ends or who you can trust. As the web of links between corrupt coppers and organised crime has multiplied, it’s begun to feel increasingly probable that the good guys might lose. As with that earlier much-feted crime drama The Wire, Line of Duty’s final lesson might be that you can take out a few villains, but what you can’t beat is the system.
Evidence of links between the UK government and actual organised crime remain thankfully few. But there are bad smells a-plenty, around everything from party donors and property developers, to the furnishings in No 10, to the exact status of the Prime Minister’s ex-girlfriend. “Some have asked, quite powerfully, ‘when did we stop caring about honesty and integrity?’” noted Labour’s Rachel Reeves, in another Hastings allusion, when she led a recent opposition day debate on the Greensill lobbying scandal.
It is possible, albeit unlikely, that the Prime Minister will be out of a job soon enough – but even if he is, does anybody seriously suspect that this will cure the sickness at the heart of the British state? Does anyone think the next PM will resume the quaint tradition of actually sacking ministers for bad behaviour once again?
We are long past the point of a few bad apples and though the faces may change, the system will remain. Perhaps Keir Starmer was onto something after all.
[See also: Is Line of Duty gaslighting me?]