Recently, I read an article about the deer in the Phoenix Park. The article cautioned that, due to the large volume of visitors during lockdown, the deer were developing anxiety disorders and were under ‘undue stress.’ I live beside the park and I go there most days. It seemed appropriate to the year that as I was gazing happily at these animals, they were similarly gazing back at me thinking, ‘Please go away.’
I understood. How could the deer bear this new amount of scrutiny? How could anyone? Days, weeks, months of intensely being watched? What did we want them to do? This is not unlike how I imagine anyone involved in television feels. Television was once like the deer in the sense that, in normal times, a few of us might wander over, mildly interested in what was going on. Cute! Funny! Haha! Awwww! We were easily pleased. Look at the beautiful creatures bouncing along. Good for them! Let’s get on with our lives. Now, we don’t exactly have lives to get on with.
This past year, out of weariness and curiosity, is the first time I’ve become really interested in television. I say interested in the way that I’m interested in books: I read reviews, I’m aware of passing trends, I’m trying to figure out what it all means. This is a near-catastrophic waste of my time—but I now have that time to waste. I also wanted to join the conversation; I don’t like to be left out. I thought I would easily be able to be part of the conversation because we would be talking about the daily cataclysmal events. But we weren’t. We were all talking about television all of the time. Now, in our isolated state, what we were expecting television to do was close to pathological. It suddenly had to replace friendship, gossip, chance encounters, love, desire, amongst other things. It had to make us human. They did what they could to entertain us at this increasingly demanding level. But they couldn’t do much.
But look, that’s neither here nor there. What’s important is television. And the important thing is, I like everyone else, was watching it. I was watching the good shows, I was watching the bad shows, until it all became blurred, until I felt I had a heightened perception of television. (I was either highly caffeinated or quite drunk.) Out of everything I watched, only one show truly captured my imagination and that was the BBC police drama Line of Duty.
Line of Duty, for the uninitiated—and that’s very few people, in the UK the last series had an average viewership of 13.67 million—is about an anti-corruption unit in the British police. Line of Duty isn’t prestige television, one of those shows that writers occasionally bestow the beautiful gift of their critical faculties; it’s essentially unserious. It has some of the most implausible scenes I’ve ever seen, some of the most risible dialogue, little to no character development. It has consumed me.
During the summer, my friend and I watched the first season across two nights. We watched the second in one night. The next day, my friend tried to renegotiate her plans so we could keep going. We had to, at all costs, keep going. I didn’t contribute much to this discussion. I was tired; I’d stayed up for a lot of the night googling, ‘Adrian Dunbar sexy?’ From the first episode, I knew Line of Duty and I spoke the same language. I was there, I was ready, I would follow this narrative until its outrageously heightened conclusion.
In college, where I studied film, I went through a period of watching a lot of 1970s paranoid thrillers: Klute, The Conversation, The Parallax View. It left me well-positioned for the current moment as I always knew we would be living in the grip of shadowy corporations controlled by sinister megalomaniacs—I was just led to believe it would be more exciting. There would be better clothes and nicer songs. But Line of Duty understands, possibly more than anything I’ve ever watched, the degree to which corruption is boring.
Our protagonists in Line of Duty are DC Fleming, DC Arnott and Superintendent Hastings. Every episode asks, ‘How many cops are good?’ and every episode answers: three of them and they are the stars of the show. (We’re not sure about one of them.) Our guys spend their time walking around a standard open-plan office; they get coffee; they squint at their computers; they go on piss-poor staff nights out; they look through filing cabinets. When I’m watching an episode I often get confused and think, ‘Am I at a conference?’ Then there’s an explosion. Somebody dies. Somebody else goes for a silent pint at a chain pub. I’m obsessed with the rhythm of this show for the reason it probably mirrors the pace and reality of real-life corruption and governmental deceit. It’s not shocking, it’s not fun, it’s often not thrilling. It just is.
At the same time, Line of Duty is deeply, terrifyingly paranoid. Paranoia is woven into the fabric of every episode. When I watch it my mind moves like a conspiracy theorist’s. ‘Jackie Laverty,’ I whisper at the screen. In a recent article by James Meek in the London Review of Books, he refers to a survey that found only half of English adults are free of ‘conspiracy thinking.’ How could anyone be free when Line of Duty is on the BBC? In the world of AC-12, you can’t trust anybody. Nothing is insignificant. It’s the perfect show for right now because it repeatedly tells you not to attempt to forge bonds with outsiders. They will try to kill you or, worse, they won’t understand your work. (Writers are the only other group of people I know who are as concerned with their partners understanding their work.)
I suppose I could justify my obsession, the waste of my hours, with the fact that I’m writing a paranoid novel and this passed as research. Had anyone ever been so committed to their own work, I wondered, as I settled down to watch another season. Around the same time I read Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill, a novel where the main character becomes fixated on a hyper-violent, American cop show called Blue Lives, a much more malevolent slice of life and law enforcement than Line of Duty. At a crucial moment of his viewing, the internet cuts out. He’s clammy, nauseous. He tells the person in charge of his Berlin residency that the spotty WiFi is totally unacceptable: ‘This makes my show very difficult. I mean my work. I’m at a crucial stage in my work.’
Admittedly, it’s odd that I’ve developed this attachment because, as a woman in her early thirties, there is so much television written with a woman like me in mind. Shows with a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. The funny woman comes on. She does her dance of self-hatred. She harms everybody she comes in contact with. Then there’s the other type of woman, and she’s so spectacular you can hardly look at her. She is the sun. She also harms everybody she comes in contact with. It me, screeches the internet in response to these women. Wow, I feel seen.
I don’t. I gave up long ago on the idea of feeling seen. But then Ted Hastings appears: abrupt, Irish, muttering ‘Mother of God’ at what he perceives to be a display of incompetence, living in a cheap hotel, his prospects finished, his marriage torpedoed. He has sacrificed too much for a job that he, on a hour to hour basis, isn’t always good at. For the first time in my entire life, I think: it me!
But wait, here comes his wife. It’s immediately obvious that these two have spent the last few years saying brutal and horrific things to each other. Hastings has several cruise brochures spread out across the table. He wants to reconcile and give her the holiday he never could because he squandered their life savings on bad investments; investments that are always obliquely and darkly hinted at. I get the sick, unmoored feeling I always get when I watch a person in a position of authority become vulnerable. It’s possible I could die watching this. But, it’s 2020, and I’m suddenly both of these people: I’m Hastings gripping the cruise brochures as if they’re all I have left, but I’m also his wife knowing there won’t be a cruise, there won’t be a holiday, nothing can go back to the way it was. I’m grateful to everyone involved in that scene because that night, for the first time since March, I didn’t lie awake, anxious, sweating, in various states of distress, promising I would be a better friend, partner, person, if things could just go back to normal. That night, I had one single dominant thought and it was this: imagine Ted Hastings on a cruise.
From my time in front of the television, I know the selling point for a lot of shows is the transition of a character into adulthood. Watch her grow up! But most of television is too scared to show true adulthood. Who can blame them? It’s awful. So they cut away, celebrate some arbitrary step towards it—she gets a dog, she gets a haircut, she stops, through sheer exertion of will, sleeping with her friend’s boyfriend. But Line of Duty is fearless; it’s pioneering in this genre. When we first meet DC Arnott he’s young, cocksure, he refuses to take any advice, he thinks most people are idiots. He’s trying to have sex with everybody, including witnesses. He’s too horny to probably have a job. By the end of season four, we barely recognise him. He’s grown a strange beard presumably because he’s deranged. Missionary? He’s asleep on the couch before the takeaway arrives. This is what happens when you spend every day witnessing the people in charge act entirely out of bad faith and self-interest. Now what adult hasn’t done that in the last year?
But Line of Duty, I occasionally have to remind myself, is fantasy. Aesthetically, it’s the greyest thing I’ve ever seen, it looks like a baggage carousel—whose fantasy could this possibly be? Who’s imagination is this barren? But the fantasy lies in the interrogation scenes. I love these scenes not because they are well-written and well-acted (which they are) but because they closely align to my vision of hell. They have the tape recordings, the CCTV, the long lens photographs of every ethically dubious decision you’ve made in your life. You’re sitting in front of God and God is played by Adrian Dunbar, and he doesn’t look happy. Now we’re sucking diesel. You’re about to ruin the lives of every single person you’ve ever cared about.
The show is actually quite generous to the people who end up on the wrong side of the desk opposite AC-12; their reasons are often morally ambiguous: an affair, a sick, elderly parent, weakness rather than malice. But that’s not who you’re identifying with. You are, of course, on the right side of the desk.
For one full hour courtesy of the BBC, you get to pretend you’re incorruptible. You will not take the envelope, you will not enjoy the kickback, you alone will rise above all temptation. Often in television you’re encouraged to identify with someone who’s exceptionally beautiful, exceptionally gifted, exceptionally intelligent. In Line of Duty, the dream is that you’re simply decent. The show knows itself too well to ever present heroism as a possibility, and television shows are like people in the sense that they are ten times better when they know who they are.
And so the year ends the way it always seemed to be marked: with a friend asking me what I’m watching? And what is it about? ‘It’s about trying not to become the thing you hate,’ I write. I delete it. ‘It’s about cops,’ I reply.