'Criminal': TV Review

Criminal Still - H - 2019
Credit: Netflix
Don't box me in.

Netflix's new series offers four variations (from the U.K., France, Germany and Spain) on the same inside-the-interrogation-box police procedural format.

Sometimes the idea for a series is better than the execution, and a prime example of that is Netflix's newest drama, Criminal

Writer George Kay and director Jim Field Smith are co-creators of this in-the-interrogation-room drama, and the twist is that the simple but effective staging is done in Netflix's Madrid-based production offices, with writer-director teams from the U.K., France, Germany and Spain using the same setting and, to some extent, narrative trappings. In the end, you've got a quartet of versions of the same concept shown globally by Netflix, which will not only delight in the four-shows-for-one-idea conceit, but in the fact that it caters to its international audience, with each country's creative team able to come up with its own stories, cast and, to some extent, style. 

The downside is that it's not especially inventive as a TV series, echoing similar in-room setups like the Israeli series turned HBO showcase In Treatment, plus any one-person stage play you can imagine. The idea that there's a cat-and-mouse game between detectives and suspects, and that locking the latter in a box will break them, was done to perfection ages ago on NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street and won't ever be equaled again any time soon (shout-out to Det. Frank Pembleton and actor Andre Braugher, plus the series creators and writers for bringing the notion of "the closer" from baseball to the cop show genre).

Anyway, it's not the fault of Criminal that a series from the 1990s set an impossible standard, but the new show does suffer from two distinct maladies that can infect a concept like this. First, since all the action takes place in a cramped room between two to four people, the demands of the writing are daunting. It's just words in there. And they better be great or there will be nothing to distract the viewer from sensing when things flag or become implausible, which happens throughout all four productions. Secondly, a production like this is like crack for an actor because it's all dialogue and affectation — sure, you can get up and scream or lash out, though most do not — but mostly the cast is just going one-on-one or, at most, one-vs.-two because the solicitor/counsel is on their side. And that lends itself, like many one-person plays, to outsized acting.

It's not really the fault of the actors. You can see why they would want a part of this and, in the British version of Criminal, you get standout performances throughout, particularly from the brand-name suspects in the first two series, David Tennant and Hayley Atwell. But, again, the tendency is for the actor to be allowed to carry everything; if the writing is there, at least there's a safety net but if too much leeway is allowed then you get something like the normally fabulous Atwell playing against type in both demeanor and accent, and it can all come off like an elaborate audition tape.

Conversely, in Tennant's case, his character is asked to say "no comment" through the vast majority of the 45-minute episode while the detectives (Lee Ingleby, Nicholas Pinnock, Katherine Kelly, Mark Stanley, Rochenda Sandall, Shubham Saraf) on both sides of the two-way interrogation mirror work to crack him. Of course he eventually starts talking — because why else would you hire Tennant for that role? — and things predictably unravel.

One of the flaws of Criminal — having watched at least one episode from each country — is that the repetition of the will-the-suspect-break idea begins to nag. Worse, and perhaps this is an American-based red flag, the legal counsel in all four countries leaves a lot to be desired. It's evident in other series from, say, the U.K., but is particularly troublesome in Criminal because the suspects get hounded repeatedly with barely any interruption from their legal counsel, and you begin to suspect that it's just convenient writing to let the soap-box badgering theatrics play out while the useless attorney stares feebly at his or her hands. (At least in one of the German episodes there is a brilliantly cocky, high-paid lawyer shutting things down — until he doesn't, which is, of course, where the breaking down of the suspect and the closing of the case occurs. Separately, if you're interested, the first French episode is probably the best).

Again, this is all very good for Kay and Smith, who get their own show plus, one would assume, some royalties from the other three even though they didn't write those versions; it's still thoroughly based in their ideas. In fact, all of the Criminal versions keep some semblance of what Kay and Smith created, particularly the fact that there's a lot of going for coffee at the vending machine in the hall (props to the Spain team for subbing in small espresso cups), going for snacks at the vending machine in the hall, taking a heated break on the stairs in the hall, meeting with co-workers and whispering complaints in the hall, etc. All of the shows are very talky and all of them, following Kay's lead, have the detectives seeming to have issues with the chain of command. 

The constraints remain. It's a beautifully constructed interrogation box with catchy flashes of red (including the ominous red countdown clock, which indicates the detectives are running out of time to break the suspects, red chairs, etc). But the sameness begins to wear — you start to long for a shot outside the building.

And, circling back to Atwell, it really does put the actors in a near impossible situation. She's very good at playing the snarling, low-rent suspect with colorful hair and what appears to be a Cockney accent, but after a while there doesn't seem to be much to the story (it was pretty easy to figure out the main plot point in all of them) — and then it's just showing off, yes? 

Criminal is an interesting if not necessarily original idea, and you can see the appeal for Netflix, but viewers are likely to want something more expansive.

Cast (U.K): David Tennant, Hayley Atwell, Youssef Kerkour, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Katherine Kelly, Lee Ingleby, Nicholas Pinnock, Mark Stanley, Rochenda Sandall, Shubham Saraf
Created by: George Kay and Jim Field Smith
Written by: George Kay
Directed by: Jim Field Smith
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)