The current season of Line of Duty is drawing to its climactic close. We are set for final shocking revelations, high drama and tension and finally for some minor player in organised crime to get their just desserts whilst the bad guy gets away with it again. I’m continuing to enjoy the gripping drama but at the same time, it has to be said, it’s all nonsense isn’t it. Of course it is captivating, gripping, enjoyable nonsense but nonsense all the same. You see, I am afraid that the show producers have rather jumped the shark.
First of all there’s this character, Ryan Pilkington. We first met him as a mouthy kid who acted as a runner for the bad guys and also used to taunt bent coppers. By this season, he has been recruited into the police to be the OCG’s inside man on a key case. As if that would happen! It’s not just that the guy would not get through police checks, it’s that he was known to the police and that he was a mouthy youth. He was never going to be the sort of person that the OCG would want to put on the inside unless they had lost the plot.
Then, there’s the high drama of the last two episodes. Kate Flemming has been lured by Jo Davidson into an isolated place to be murdered. Why would she think it a good idea to tip up at an unknown location for a chat with someone who may well be dodgy? Then when Ryan turns up pointing a gun at her, she fires first and kills him. So, what does she do? At this point, she has acted lawfully both as a police officer licenced to carry and use a lethal weapon and as a citizen acting in self defence. She had a gun pointed at her. She has notified her colleagues who are on the way and know she is in danger. So why would she then go on the run with the person who has just attempted to get her killed? Her actions made no sense whatsoever.
To finish off any realists, we then discover that Kate and Jo got caught because wait for it, the Chief Constable had ordered for trackers to be placed on the vehicles of AC12 (the anti-corruption police unit). Can you imagine the paperwork involved in getting that action through? Can you imagine the backlash there would be? Increasingly in order to keep the police drama both complex and gripping, the show writers choose to give plausibility a miss.
Now in one sense that doesn’t matter. We all know how to solve murder mysteries from Morse and Lewis to Midsomer, our ability to identify the murderer has nothing to do with how crimes are really solved and everything to do with our awareness of how the mind of a crime fiction writer works. Crime drama like any other kind of drama is meant to encourage a level of escapism.
Yet, the problem comes with two issues. First of all, when there is too much of an overlap with real life. TV drama’s often rely on us suspending reality by taking us into a sort of parallel universe. Line of Duty for example is set in an unnamed fictional city. Meanwhile NCIS has its own fictional news channel ZNN, caffeine drink brand and of course whilst it has Government ministers involved, these are clearly fictional and we stay just far enough away from engaging the actual President or other known public figures.
Oddly enough, we’ve seen dramas like NCIS and This is Us decide to allow some cross over into reality and attempt to acknowledge the global pandemic. This often creates plausibility problems when we watch actors attempting to reflect pandemic life whilst doing the opposite of what is actually expected. How many times do we see someone walk into the scene wearing a face mask alone outdoors before going into a building and then meeting up with a few people who all remove their facemasks to talk?
In Line of Duty, we’ve had references to police treatment of popstars and even an explicit mention of Jimmy Saville and that moves us into the real world of 21st Century policing. We cannot just suspend reality.
But furthermore, the drama is touching on issues such as corruption, politics in policing and institutional racism. Its aim is obviously not just to entertain but to shine a light on life, to critique and challenge. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that if that is your aim. Fiction has long been used to make political, philosophical and religious points. Line of Duty follows in a long proud tradition there. However, if you are going to give the impression that your story is set in the real world and you are going to use that story to challenge and campaign, then it is important that you don’t jump the plausibility shark. The story has to be credible, believable. We should be left thinking “this really could happen.”
Instead, if the plotline lacks plausibility, we are going to assume that the whole set up is ridiculous. We get the opposite effect. The only way that there could be this kind of corruption and these kind of failings, we conclude, is in a bizarre make belief world. Instead of thinking “this could happen here.” We decide “this could never happen here.”
Preachers, there is a lesson to learn here. Do you know what is one of the things that will undo all of your hard work at mastering the text and working at apologetic persuasion? It will be a soppy illustration, especially one borrowed from a book or the internet with the claim “this is a true story.” If a story is going to serve its purpose of illuminating and reinforcing the point made, it needs to be plausible.