If you’re craving feel-good TV, Peacock’s original streaming options won’t make you particularly happy. From the synthetic sterility of Brave New World to the latest attempt to market Ryan Lochte as a likeable television personality, NBCUniversal’s new platform has gone all-in on dystopia.
Probably the best, and certainly the most thoughtful, of the initial Peacock offerings is The Capture, which premiered on BBC One last fall. It’s a twisty journey that starts as a grounded exploration of the Panopticon-esque paranoia of the British surveillance state. That it eventually becomes something convoluted and vaguely silly is a disappointment, but the six hourlong episodes at least kept me curious throughout.
Written and directed by Ben Chanan, The Capture focuses on Rachel Carey (Holliday Grainger), a young detective on the promotion fast-track in the London police department after helping to crack a major counterterrorism case with an assist from the city’s extensive CCTV network. When a British soldier (Callum Turner’s Shaun Emery) is exonerated for a war crime but quickly accused of assaulting and kidnapping his barrister (Laura Haddock’s Hannah Roberts), Rachel’s investigation leads her to discover strange inconsistencies in CCTV footage. That, in turn, prompts concerns about the country’s day-to-day sacrifice of freedoms in the name of an illusory security provided by a surveillance state.
Shaun’s case sends Rachel down a rabbit hole of interconnected and international intelligence collaborations, leaving her unsure of whom she can trust (and whether or not she can trust her own eyes).
Rare is the British crime drama over the past decade that hasn’t made CCTV into a key part of the investigative process. How could you not? Outside of China, London is the most surveilled city in the world, with more than 68 cameras per thousand people as of mid-2019 (Atlanta, if you’re curious, is the most surveilled U.S. city, with less than 16 cameras per thousand people). CCTV is pervasive and intrusive, and its effectiveness when it comes to deterring future crimes or solving past crimes has been the subject of countless reports that reach a variety of conclusions that could, on average, be boiled down to: “Yes, it seems to be effective when it comes to some types of crimes in some areas, but not other types of crimes in other areas.” Or, boiled down even more: “Kinda.”
The Capture is more interested in the psychology of CCTV. Whether or not the data shows that it works, what does it mean that the citizenry thinks that it works? What does it mean if court cases hinge on video evidence? What does it mean if police investigations hinge on this surveillance? How do we hold on to our faith in video evidence if we’ve already decided that the news is “fake,” that “alternative facts” can be substituted for “facts”? And without that faith, what are we left with?
It’s provocative stuff and I don’t know if The Capture is fully able to deal with the nuance; the case explored over six episodes is so big and so far-reaching in its implications that it leaves reality behind and becomes borderline science fiction by the third or fourth episode. Stories like this, in their best Hitchcockian form, work better when they keep the focus on extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. There’s almost no, “Something like this could happen to anybody!” empathetic connection here at all.
When it has to actually explain what happened in the case, the series goes from “fairly intelligent” to “fairly dumb,” and even when it was still in that “intelligent” range, it’s far from subtle. Chanan’s direction nails the voyeuristic sensation of being able, if you have the correct technology, to monitor people’s lives for nearly every second they’re visible from door-to-door — toilets and courtrooms are, we’re told, the only pubic spaces not monitored by CCTV. But consciousness of those eyes in the sky doesn’t mean every episode requires between 10 and 20 close-ups on cameras or reaction shots of characters suddenly realizing that they’re being observed. This is where those later episodes go from science fiction to inadvertent comedy.
The actors are mostly able to keep the heightened drama believable. Turner is especially good, leaving just enough ambiguity regarding both of the crimes he’s accused of that his performance becomes the thing driving the show’s shades of gray; the character radiates a scary intensity that could be justifiable if he’s an innocent man trapped in a ’70s-style conspiracy thriller or if he’s a guilty man fleeing capture. The show makes you wait to learn the truth about Turner’s character, but I’m not sure it’s as intentional in suggesting what we’re supposed to think about Carey’s skill as a detective or her affair with her boss (Ben Miles) and the role that may have played in her professional advancement. Whether Shaun and Rachel are victims or, in different ways, criminals is subject to debate, and both Turner and Grainger play the uncertainty well.
The case is loaded with appropriately chilly authority figures, each of whom benefits from the use of CCTV in different ways. You have to wait a couple episodes to get to a great Lia Williams as a mysterious figure either aiding or obfuscating Rachel’s investigation — and to a gruffly commanding Ron Perlman, infusing his character with elements of Trumpian derangement that one can only assume appealed to Perlman. Famke Janssen pops up late in the game, presumably for the sake of a second season very much set in motion by the finale. After this run’s sputtering closing episodes, it will take a really enticing hook at the top of the second season to recover my interest.
Stars: Holliday Grainger, Callum Turner, Laura Haddock, Ben Miles, Paul Ritter, Lia Williams, Sophia Brown, Ron Perlman
Creator: Ben Chanan
Premieres Wednesday, July 15, on Peacock.