tv review

Netflix’s Criminal Is More Thought Experiment Than Crime Procedural

David Tennant makes a strong impression in the Criminal: UK portion of the series. Photo: Jose Haro/Vulture

Netflix’s Criminal is a thought experiment that’s been turned into a TV show. Created by George Kay (Killing Eve) and Jim Field Smith (The Wrong Mans), it presents criminal investigations spread across four different countries — Spain, England, France, and Germany — each with its own title beneath the Criminal series umbrella. In all four subseries, the action is focused on a single floor of a police station, with the interrogation room as the focal point, creating an effect somewhat like the legendary Homicide: Life on the Street episode “Three Men and Adena,” which spent an hour on a single questioning, or HBO’s In Treatment, which unfolded almost entirely within therapy sessions. Only the episodes set in England are in English; the rest are subtitled. The scenery that’s visible through the windows changes depending on the locale, and there are subtle differences in the filmmaking and performance style from shot to shot. But the architecture doesn’t change, and the notion that police work is basically the same no matter where you are comes across loud and clear.

The cast includes actors who are famed in their own country and beyond (including Hayley Atwell, Nathalie Baye, and Jérémie Renier), plus a mix of dependable character actors and relative newcomers. David Tennant makes a strong impression in the U.K. stretch of the show, as a polite but unnerving man accused of murdering his 13-year-old stepdaughter, with whom he might have had an inappropriate relationship. Criminal: France’s Sara Giraudeau plays a survivor of the Bataclan bombing whose story has some suspicious inconsistencies. Criminal: Spain has Eduard Fernández as a criminal who’s been the target of an ongoing criminal investigation for years but has always managed, like Al Capone back in the day, to slip through the coppers’ fingers.

The filmmakers treat each story as an exercise in filmmaking logistics, and the result often feels like an absorbing and kinetic movie adaptation of a stage play, where the goal is to make things as visually interesting as possible without contriving reasons to have characters leave the “set” to go out into a park or take a walk on the beach for no defensible reason. Criminal: U.K. in particular is a marvel of acrobatic camerawork and clever transitions, using the video images of the suspect under surveillance in the interrogation room to transfer from one room to the next, in long takes that seem to defy basic rules of geography.

Fans of formal experiments will eat the show up — at least at first. At a certain point, though, the lack of narrative and visual variety starts to leach away the novelty. Even while binge-watching something like Law & Order and loving the ritualized structural aspects of it, there are still moments when you may wish you couldn’t anticipate every beat before it happens, such as the moment when the witness changes his or her story or says something misleading, causing a wild goose chase by the investigators, which sets up yet another twist near the end. A similar sense of predictability plagues Criminal, to the point where you may start to look at the running time and contemplate skipping ahead to the big reveal. It’s safe to say that you can be a tourist in this series, though it may not be strictly necessary to visit all four of Criminal’s countries to get a sense of its world.

Criminal Is More Thought Experiment Than Crime Procedural