Often thought of as Britain’s answer to The Wire, Line of Duty premiered on BBC Two in 2012. A sign of its success, the crime drama was promoted to BBC One in 2017. The hotly anticipated sixth season finally premiered in the U.K. on Sunday, much to the delight of its ever-patient fans. Created and written by Jed Mercurio, the man behind the award-winning political crime thriller Bodyguard, the show is slowly gaining traction in the U.S., with new audiences discovering it via the streaming platform Acorn TV.
Set in an unidentified British city, Line of Duty is centered on the investigations and personnel of AC-12, a unit tasked with uncovering the deep-rooted corruption and links to organized crime within the police force. The AC-12 detectives are duty bound to investigate their own peers. (Of course, sometimes it’s the anti-corruption officers themselves who arouse suspicion.) While new lead characters are introduced each season — Bodyguard actress Keeley Hawes and Thandie Newton have each enjoyed starring turns — there is a core trio at the heart of the show that maintain a front-and-center role. Detectives Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) and Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) are partners against organized crime. They report to Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), the commanding officer most often referred to as “the gaffer.” (Now would be a good time to mention that Line of Duty also serves as a crash course in British slang. Gaffer is a term used to identify the top boss. And what a truly iconic gaffer he is, but more on that later.)
Line of Duty isn’t for the fainthearted. This is a show in which people aren’t so much stabbed in the back as they are near decapitated from behind. The crimes are unforgiving, the dialogue all-consuming, and the tense cliffhangers will have you shouting at your screen in disbelief. The plot tends to prompt more questions than it answers.
In recent years, there has been a growing trend of internet sleuths joining forces to solve real-life crimes. While the aim may be to aid the legal investigation — and they often do — overzealous wannabe detectives have also been known to cause serious damage. Netflix documentaries Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel and Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer highlight the risks of citizens involving themselves in high-profile cases. But long before the rise of internet sleuths came the harmless — but by no means less passionate — armchair sleuths: loyal fans who set about honing their detective skills by dissecting fictional dramas. Line of Duty viewers are in a league of their own when it comes to armchair sleuthing. Somewhere along the way, the audience has tasked itself to work alongside AC-12 in uncovering corruption within the police force. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the show’s production members. When the trailer for season six dropped, the team behind it gave Taylor Swift a run for her money and left Easter eggs for fans. Eagle-eyed viewers spotted a magazine cover featuring a QR code. Once scanned, it led to an official police letter questioning the integrity of AC-12’s core officers.
During the season-six premiere, those fractures within AC-12 are clear to see. The show’s core trio appear to no longer be working in harmony. Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott is thinking of jumping ship to another department. His longtime work partner, Detective Inspector Kate Fleming, is one step ahead. Having grown “fed up” of the anti-corruption unit, she has joined the murder-investigation team. Once again, viewers are unsure of who they can trust and who, if anyone, is on the same side.
Line of Duty exceeds beyond the overused good-cop, bad-cop trope, instead operating within a far more complex dynamic. Even the most straitlaced coppers are just one misstep away from operating on the wrong side of the law. This tension was expertly explored and executed last season, when we were introduced to Detective Sergeant John Corbett (portrayed by British actor Stephen Graham, perhaps best known to U.S. audiences for his recurring role as Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire). DS Corbett is assigned to go undercover and infiltrate an organized-crime group. He becomes disillusioned by the task at hand when he is given incriminating information about a high-ranking officer. Convinced he can no longer trust anyone within the force, Corbett goes rogue. Through his desperate bid to uncover the rotten apple from behind enemy lines, he becomes a criminal himself. In Line of Duty, the line between right and wrong is often completely eviscerated. It’s up to Ted Hastings — whose No. 1 interest is “nicking bent coppers” (arresting corrupt officers) — and his team to act as the moral compass. But even Hastings isn’t immune from falling into disrepute. To the viewers’ shock, in season five, he’s accused of being “H” — the elusive entity thought to be at the helm of the organized-crime group (hardly surprising he was in the firing line, given the first initial of his surname.) As the debate over the gaffer’s alleged corruption waged on, “Who is H?” became headline news across Britain. The truth is uncovered in the scintillating season finale, and the core message of the show remains true: No one is above the law.
You only have to watch one episode of Line of Duty to understand the power of Ted Hastings. Like Dunbar himself, Hastings hails from Northern Ireland. His no-nonsense approach to the job and fierce determination to uphold the “letter of the law” makes him an enticing figure. Hastings’s crowning glory, however, is his way with words. The gaffer is lauded for his particular set of colloquialisms, affectionately referred to by fans as Tedisms. Among his most recognizable phrases are “Mother of God” and “God, give me strength.” (As someone who grew up in a London Irish household, I can confirm that it’s not at all unusual to hear these words uttered on a daily basis.) Hastings often says “fella,” which he uses interchangeably as a stern address and an affectionate handle. Another firm favorite is “Now we’re sucking diesel.” Translation: “We’re making progress.” Viewers have even invented drinking games based on the frequency of these Tedisms.
Despite Hastings’s elite stature within the police force, those Tedisms help him come across as relatable. And that’s true of Line of Duty in general. The story lines are elaborate and, at times, convoluted, yet the show itself isn’t sleek — and I mean that in the best of ways. Line of Duty remains accessible. There’s no glamour in the AC-12 task force, just good old-fashioned hard graft. The officers are fundamentally flawed. Their personal lives are far from idealistic, as such dedication to the job leaves little room for anything outside of the workplace to flourish. These characters are not portrayed as superhuman crime-fighters. They’re refreshingly ordinary.
Line of Duty delivers high-octane action, enthralling story lines, and superb performances, all of which make it seemingly impossible not to become invested in the outcome of the show. If you’ve always fancied yourself as a bit of a detective, this is a series that rewards obsessive armchair sleuthing. But be warned: This isn’t the kind of show you can steal a look at while scrolling through social media. Oh, no — Line of Duty demands, and deserves, your full attention.