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The Shadow Line

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The Shadow Line debuts tonight on DirecTV’s Audience Network at 9 p.m. Eastern.

It seems lately that you can’t throw a rock without hitting a new, gritty crime show imported from the United Kingdom. More and more programs are belatedly making their way to our shores, and in addition to such noir fare as Luther and Whitechapel we can now add The Shadow Line. The seven-part series, which originally aired in the spring of 2011 on BBC Two, premières tonight on DirecTV’s Audience Network. That it airs just before a repeat of The Wire is probably a coincidence, although there are some similarities at play. No, The Shadow Line is in no way a direct heir to David Simon’s seminal program. But it does spend as much time with the police as with the criminals they are trying to stop, and does a good job at blurring the moral lines between both forces.

On the side of law stands DI Jonah Gabriel, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. (Honestly, how it’s taken him this long to star in a show like The Shadow Line boggles the mind.) Gabriel catches a case concerning a dead crime lord, recently released from prison under questionable circumstances. This crime lord, Harvey Wratten, served time alongside his nephew Jay for various counts of drug trafficking, but both were recently freed thanks to a deal cut with the government. The specifics of the deal are unknown to many, but raise suspicions on both sides of the law.


Also raising suspicions? The circumstances around the bullet lodged in Gabriel’s head, which left him off the force and with selective amnesia. Hearing the word “amnesia” probably sounds alarms of worry in many hoping to jump into this series. While there are some trite plot twists concerning what Gabriel does or does not remember, it’s just one aspect of Gabriel’s tightly coiled persona. The Wratten case may or may not tie into the reason a bullet landed inside his skull, but does tie into the way that The Shadow Line is keenly interested in how the ways in which police officers and criminals justify their behaviors both to themselves and to others.

On the flip side of the coin (or, more accurately, the same side of two different coins) lies Joseph Bede, played by a restrained Christopher Eccleston. Bede describes himself early on as a “flower man,” and we learn that he has meticulously built a front for Wratten’s drug business by establishing a legitimate horticultural business in order to hide any illegal activities. Bede is no Stringer Bell, but the ways both fashion themselves outside the very underworld they willingly participate. “People like us, we’re not supposed to be heard… ever,” he tells hot-headed Jay, a character that seems out of place in the hushed criminal world of The Shadow Line. Jay is a lip-smacking, tic-having character that would fit in with the over-the-top nightmare world of Luther but sticks out here like a sore thumb. His character is meant to add an air of unpredictability to the proceedings, but only highlights how well this program eschews the obvious choices for more subtle, more believable, and ultimately more relatable characterization.


In this vein, the thread of familial obligations finds its way through every major story line. If Jay’s grief over his deceased father is the primary example of this, it’s also the least interesting. Far more compelling are Bede’s relationship with his wife, which helps explain his rise from simply cooking the books to taking the reins in the vacuum that Wratten’s death creates. Those he comes into contact with inside the vast criminal underworld of this show have similar sensibilities. A Turkish drug runner enjoys watching satellite programs in his car because it makes him feel as if he’s watching it with his family back home. The mother of a suspect in Wratten’s death fends off intimidation on all sides in order to defend the latest of her offspring to find themselves involved in the criminal world. And Gabriel’s past may or may not be tied into the strained relationship with his wife, with whom he’s experienced multiple failed attempts to conceive a child.

If all of these people find themselves just a hair’s breadth away from crossing the line from one side to another, then Stephen Rea’s character Gatehouse represents either the titular line itself or some form of third rail no one else dares to touch. He doesn’t appear in tonight’s episode, but he’s all over the second installment. That he’s less of a three-dimensional character so much as omnipotent figure in his first episode is only a problem if the character never moves beyond it. But Gatehouse positions himself to all as on the side of neither the police nor the criminals. Nevertheless, he has a keen interest in the Wratten case and its ultimate resolution. Many characters in the first two hours use imagery related to vipers, snakes, and pits. Gatehouse is the physical embodiment of all of these, luring people in without them unaware he’s about to strike.


Things move methodically in the first two installments, but there’s still a shape to each hour that makes you feel as if something tangible has been accomplished. The end of each episode features a thrilling action sequence, the kind of which any Bourne movie would be proud to have included in its ranks. (When’s the last time you’ve seen a truly thrilling foot chase?) Dialogue ranks from “competent” to “poetic,” with a Pinter-esque introductory scene that establishes a thematic tone versus a verbal roadmap for the series. As an opening salvo, the sequence is a humdinger, but I’m glad the show didn’t aim for a type of heightened language that would have sounded at best like a pale David Milch impression.

Sadly, for the time being, DirecTV is the only stateside source for the series. That’s too bad, since while this is an imperfect series, it really nails the big beats in an effective manner. Ejiofor, Eccleston, and Rea don’t share a single second of screentime in these initial episodes, but it never feels as if The Shadow Line is keeping them apart for arbitrary reasons. All of their particular paths will eventually connect on the horizon. But in the meantime, each side of the line is well constructed, building upon established tropes but giving each a new spin to keep things fresh. In eschewing the histrionics of its fellow crime imports, The Shadow Line lets its nuanced silence speak volumes about its characters.


Stray observations:

  • If you’re worried that the overly graphic introduction is a harbinger of things to come, don’t worry. This is a show about psychology more than bloody violence.
  • Deliverance fans will enjoy a particular scene in tonight’s première. Kitten lovers, however, may take up pitchforks after watching the second hour.
  • The historical context surrounding the Wratten pardon get explained by a reporter, who will probably end up ruing the day he did so much research on the history of such deals between the government and its criminal element.
  • The Wire’s Lester Freamon would suggest that Jonah Gabriel follow the money. But it’s clear by the end of tonight’s première that such a course of action might lead down some roads Gabriel won’t want to remember, even if he could.
  • The question that Bede’s right-hand man asks his would-be assailants near the end of tonight’s première puts him close to the lofty heights of Mike from Breaking Bad.
  • “I’m better in dark corners.”
  • “You leave a party, Joseph, and sooner or later someone will take your seat.”
  • “What are going to say to them?” “Nothing that will help.”