The 50 best TV shows of 2022: No 5 – The Responder

Tony Schumacher spent 11 years as a night patrol officer in Merseyside, with spit in his face and blood on his boots, responding to emergency calls. Night after hellish night, he worked the job that ended up giving him a nervous breakdown and PTSD. He’s described the experience as “like some long LSD trip”. Some shifts he’d be picking up dead bodies, others he’d be called to a pub because a llama was running amok. He took all the carnage, trauma and humour and packed it into The Responder, one of the rawest BBC dramas in recent memory.

Martin Freeman played Chris Carson, a constable about to disappear down a hole towards certain collapse, possibly death. He talked freely to his counsellor about being on the brink of hurting himself and his beloved daughter and partner. Within minutes, we had watched him threaten to kill a particularly peevesome member of the public who hates his neighbour’s dog and calls the police incessantly about it. “You’re disappearing these last few months,” said his put-upon wife, Kate, who’d been driven back into the arms of Ray, a cop who shopped Chris in for supposed corruption and got him demoted.

It was brilliantly unclear at first whether Chris was in fact a bent copper. But after he was arm-twisted by local drug dealer Carl into finding Town Centre Casey, a local “baghead” or addict who had done Carl dirty, he finally crossed the line.

Freeman put in an astonishing stint as the officer whose every act was either hard to stomach, ethically questionable or entirely reprehensible. Here was a man who had to sift the motorway’s edge for body parts. Who regularly attacked the people he is meant to protect and serve. Who stole a flask of soup and pack of cigs from a woman who’d not long since died, while he sat by her body.

And when he went to unburden his tainted soul to his therapist, telling her how his work is ruining his life, how he just wants to try to be a good man but can’t remember the last time he did something good, he realised she’d picked up the wrong file and had forgotten who he is. “I’m dying in front of you and you don’t even know me name,” he said. She tried to get him to do some calming visualisations. They did not go well.

When everything overwhelmed Chris, after months, perhaps years, of grinding him down to non-existence and he finally allowed himself to cry one solitary tear, the catharsis was unbearable.

This was television so morally murky it made for fascinating, challenging viewing. And although it covered issues from inherited trauma to domestic abuse, it did so while keeping up the propulsive pace of a thriller – as the hunt to find, save or kill Casey went into overdrive – with a sharp, snappy script.

It was also uniquely, excellently British. The Shipping Forecast played on the radio while some heavies roughed up Casey, and all the bad guys broke off from their dodgy dealings to have sweet-as-pie chats to their colleague’s kids. It was full of scouse royalty, too – Ian Hart, Sinbad from Brookside, and Rita Tushingham as Chris’s mum, who he rolls spliffs for in her care home.

Every tiny moment of this writing sparks something, every scene a political act that speaks to how we live now. When Casey stole the dealer’s huge backpack full of coke it showed the addict’s entrepreneurial desperation her pal Marco also used when he robbed a giant block of cheese and tried to flog it at the newsagents. These moments were at once hilarious and harrowing, a line only the best dramas can straddle.

A lesser show would start out with our hero descending into the bowels of hell then have him learn to be good again – but Chris was in too deep, and this world too unforgiving for that. Instead, we end with him still dangling over the precipice, life and career and future hanging in the balance. What a brave move.

The Responder was a masterwork of ethical conundrums: what does it mean to be a good person? To have a life worth living? To even be someone who means anything, who isn’t a pointless waste of everyone’s time. Can a person be so trampled on they become irreparable? If it sounds grim, oh good grief it was, but it was also a perfect depiction of a broken life in a broken system – within a cycle that can’t seem to be broken.

This was state-of-the-nation stuff, and basically a Bafta land grab. Not bad for a reformed bobby on his first TV writing gig.