The Shadow Line is a tv show created by Hugo Blick that ran earlier this year on BBC2. It didn’t do particularly well, it wasn’t responded to as much more than another cop show and disregarded by immediate reviews. By their appraisal, this is a stodgy, downbeat attempt at creating an English equivalent to The Wire. It’s a whodunnit where you don’t particularly care about the outcome. It’s bleak. The Shadow Line frequently gets compared to the Wire, but usually in a dismissive, offhand way. The Wire features a similar cops and criminals focus, and is now so revered that it is almost impossible to do a tv series with this kind of scope and weight without having to deal with the Wire comparison in some way. The Shadow Line seems to be the first show to fully grapple with what making this kind of tv show in the wake of the Wire would mean (including Breaking Bad, Red Riding, and everything David Simon has done since it’s end). Blick seems to want to address with nearly every aspect of The Wire – from it’s approach to procedural detail, to it’s way of introducing and creating characters, all of which are approach in a startlingly rigorous fashion for a series that only encompasses 7 episodes. The thing it deals with most when addressing the Wire, is realism. Or “realism”, which is what the Wire’s meticulous reportage amounts to, even as the stories operated in the realms of Greek dramatic structure and operatic escalation. Instead we as viewers are experiencing what we would describe as obsessive realism – there is no montage on the Wire, all the music is diegetic to the scene. Something as obsessively held to detail as that feels real, even as it treats it’s characters as pawns of massive institutional forces that act as gods.
Blick takes the Shadow Line another way, with elements of recent noble attempt at novelistic British television, Red Riding; to create a show that seems to be ornately composed within only a scant few hours of narrative. Red Riding’s filmic novel’s heartbeat seemingly considered along with the Wire’s organic pacing, only Blick does something interesting with that space between moments of just-the-facts recording of occurrences. It allows events to linger and characters to wait, for tension to build and crime to occasionally lapse into suspense or even horror. This is realism in the sense that the real world frequently can confront the sensible and even the most degrading aspects of life with the inexplicable, the sudden, the larger than life. There is, it would seem an internal procedural at play in the heart of this show along with an external one.
There is a sense that this is the argument at the heart of The Shadow Line is that yes, larger forces dictate the actions of characters on both sides of the law, and yes, humanity and emotion is something completely unconsidered by these forces. But instead in The Shadow Line, there seems to be a sense of lingering need to consider the emotional aspects of these characters. And a sense that complicity is what destroys people, both spiritually and physically. There seems to be a sense with nearly every character except for the youngest, that the cost of doing business is something that is destroying their personal lives, and eating away at their moral compasses. The characters that would be the protagonists on any other show – Joseph Bede and Jonah Gabriel – are men whose lives are defined by loved ones and guilty consciences. They are managing their way through worlds they cannot help to navigate without comprising themselves. Bede is an all-business money man who is only acting on a criminal enterprise in order to ensure the care of his wife, who is in the middle stages of early onset Alzheimer’s. If you like, he is a keen inversion of Stringer Bell, who sought to walk away from criminality in order to become a businessman, and was cost everything because of his feelings for others. Gabriel is even more blatant about finding his footing – recovering from a bullet in the head on a mission he can’t remember, with evidence piling up that he may have been dirty and his actions may have gotten him shot and his partner killed, he spends much of the show in fear for his own soul and his wife’s unborn baby (after multiple miscarriages) and her finding out about his mistress and other child. These are two men who understand they are working on borrowed time, and their parallels are the show’s soul, and it is shown to be constantly degraded and slung in shades of moral gray. And doomed, if you had any doubt, their eventual fates are the same, and obviously headed towards death from their first scenes. But these two also share something else with every other character who appears in the Shadow Line – their past, their intentions, and surprisingly often enough their actions, are in doubt. Always in doubt.
The reporter (who unlike in David Simon’s world, is not the highest moral position a man can occupy) is portrayed as an antagonist for Gabriel for most of his time on the show. He is a figure of dubious morality and appears to be after Gabriel for almost no reason other than to hound him for some imagined slight. As the story goes on, though, he is shown to be more in the right than other shows would be comfortable giving a villain, and never once redeemed. He is only dispatched from the show when he breaches his own convictions, not the ones imposed by the show. His failure is to himself, not to the forces above him or the writer’s whim. There is a sense that the universe in The Shadow Line is more set on the internal live of it’ characters. The kids as well – Rafe Spall’s Jay Wratten is a constant reminder of the possibility of insanity floating around the proceedings. The comparisons of his performance to Heath Ledger’s Joker are not accidental, only instead of a moral aberration in this world his opposition to every other character’s obsession with family or relationships. As he says in the final episode “Family. Or Business.”, and he means it. He is autonomous in this world because of his emotional disconnect, and his intense, unpredictable performance turns out to be more of a force of nature than one dictated by one. Rafe Spall is legitimately scary here, something that is nearly impossible to do on a show like this. He’s not even really the scariest thing here. Unnamed in the story but named in the credits is Rattalack, a response to legendary gay stick up artist Omar on the Wire. Introduced in the middle of the first season to massive fanfare, here is a gay character that eschews the macho aspects of his counterpart and instead shows the possibility of a high camp mastermind that terrifies his elders, simply by being younger and prettier and smarter than all the old men he’s talking at. Wratten and Rattalack are the two characters that make it out unscathed – physically and spiritually – because of their willingness, dictated by their youth it seems, to place business above all attachments.
The final parallel, the most important one, isn’t really a parallel at all, is that of Glickman, who barely appears in the show and lingers around the proceedings, and of the breakout star of the series Gatehouse, played by Stephen Rea. Gatehouse is really this show’s Omar. If only because like Omar, you can talk to someone about the series by just talking about how great a character Gatehouse is. Gatehouse and Glickman are the ghosts here, the men who actually know and understand what is going on. Gatehouse is not just a small man who speaks very quietly and does terrible things. He’s not just someone who we can watch methodically go through atrocity while all the other characters simply deal with the aftermath. He is the forward motion of the plot, he is the catalyst.
Glickman’s son describes him by saying “He puts things in boxes”. Glickman is the horror of compartmentalization, the part of the western world that can allow itself to wage a cold war and pretend that nothing is happening. Or a real one now, now that we no longer care (the relationship to crime and real war is something that should never be discounted – American Noir has always been the conscience of our wars, why should the English be any different) Gatehouse is the figure who does horrible things, all the time, every time. But Glickman is a lot harder to reconcile. Because he isn’t the one that pulls the trigger but is completely fine with doing so. The cold war never ends, as they say. It has never been more true than when these figures enter the picture, completely bereft of any and all purpose beyond gamesmanship. There is no moral compulsion in their actions – there may have been at one point, but there isn’t any longer. This is just control and conflict, occurring because it has to.
It’s not perfect. In any sense, there are times when it feels like the most important elements of the plot are held back in order to dwell on uninteresting points. Certain things are reiterated. Blick seem more at ease writing any character complexly as long as it isn’t a woman (seriously, there is a gay character here to rival and maybe top Omar Little, but the women are written atrociously except for Eve Best). Still, the images are what lingers, not so much the lines. The strobing baby monitor as Gatehouse screams. The horror of Jonah Gabriel as he finds the money in his closet. The blood on the floor in Bede’s kitchen. Wratten’s face against the elevator door. Glickman’s face lit red. A motorcyclist sitting bleeding on the road. A child’s coffin lowering into a grave. Eve Best with heart monitors across her chest standing over Gatehouses body, timing her count to his heartbeat, before the soundtrack screams atonal. This isn’t simply a refutation of the Wire, it may be something even greater. This is truly realistic television, and truly novelistic as well. It allows for an internal life for it’s characters, and in turn a more nuanced approach to the uncomfortable parts of their lives. This is the crime drama of the unconscious, concerned with the chance that we can’t really know what is going on and still be human. Because maybe, just maybe….
- SEAN WITZKE, OCTOBER 2011
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