Better review: BBC cop show makes for compelling viewing

D I Lou Slack (Leila Farzad) in Better (BBC)
D I Lou Slack (Leila Farzad) in Better. (BBC)

When personal grief and professional loyalties collide things rarely get Better – as Detective Inspector Lou Slack (Leila Farzad) finds out — in the new BBC drama streaming on iPlayer now.

Written by Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent (Humans), this Leeds based melodrama deals with police corruption, drug dealing turf wars, and a very special connection between two people.

In the opening minutes audiences are introduced to Lou and her husband Ceri (Samuel Edward-Cook), who are celebrating with friends. Moments later she receives a phone call and is forced to leave her other half stranded, as something across town requires attention.

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Far away from the affluent isolation of that private moment Lou changes clothes, parks a safe distance away, and proceeds on foot dressed in black. Under sodium street lights and free from spectators, she enters the derelict building having wrapped her feet in plastic bags to avoid leaving footprints.

Leila Farzad and Andrew Buchan play people with a dark secret in Better. (BBC)
Leila Farzad and Andrew Buchan play people with a dark secret in Better. (BBC)

Using a low-profile flashlight she locates her intended target, retrieves the incriminating item, then back tracks in silence pausing briefly to step over an unconscious body. Surrounded by their own blood and moaning quietly, she makes a split-second decision and leaves without looking back. With the tainted firearm concealed, a clear conscience, and her dirty work done, Detective Inspector Lou Slack returns home unconcerned.

The next day their son Owen (Zak Ford-Williams) falls ill with meningitis, forcing Lou to re-evaluate the professional partnership she has with Colum McHugh (Andrew Buchan): a old friend, old flame, and high-profile drug dealer. As the life of her son hangs by a thread, she starts questioning every choice which has led to this point.

Meanwhile, Col and his wife Alma (Carolin Stoltz) have been grieving over the loss of their daughter to an overdose. Col is seeking to fill that emotional void with professional success, through persistent and aggressive expansion of his clandestine enterprise. An approach which systematically isolates his wife and son Donal (Cel Spellman), while the death of his little girl haunts every waking moment.

Lou Slack (Leila Farzad) in Better (BBC)
Lou Slack (Leila Farzad) in Better (BBC)

What writers Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent do here is explore the complexities behind everyday relationships. It starts with the gentle tip of a single domino, which in turn brings about a moral and ethical epiphany, as a barely averted tragedy brings everything into sharp focus. At the heart of this compelling drama sits the ultimate in ambiguous relationships, as Colum and Lou engage in a delicate on-screen two-step, questioning their motives and emotional honesty throughout.

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Leila Farzad (I Hate Suzie) and Andrew Buchan (Broadchurch) excel in breathing life into these two conflicting characters, who have far too much skin in the game to back out. As their understated attraction clashes with their professional responsibilities, audiences will begin to see how inextricably linked they are as people.

As each layer of their relationship is revealed, it becomes apparent how reliant everyone is on things remaining the same. Even after her son Owen is home and equilibrium restored, a cavalcade of heinous discoveries makes it impossible for Lou to remain complicit in these lies. Pushed to breaking point by pressure from all sides, she seeks solace in the past through family photos and stumbles on her salvation.

Lou Slack (Leila Farzad) in Better (BBC)
Lou Slack (Leila Farzad) in Better (BBC)

Better also questions how much control people have over the choices they make, whether personal or professional. It suggests that characteristic compulsions define most of society, who make their choices according to the expectations of others. However, Lou and Colum have engineered a way to live within those parameters, yet make their choices free from such constraints.

For Lou, this entire series serves as her awakening from a moral vacuum, where that ambiguity is no longer necessary. One in which she realises the depth of her complicity and seeks penance through an act of attrition. That this journey is wrapped up in a slick piece of drama should be applauded since Better seeks to ask the same questions of its audience, making them equally culpable.

However, irrespective of the complexities of any script, dramatic power comes down to performances and prose. An abundance of which exists in Better, thanks to some supremely solid support from Anton Lesser (Vernon Marley) amongst others. Those other understated contributions aside, it is the screen time he shares with Leila Farzad which gives this series its gravitas.

Both as a link between criminal classes and as a moral guidance counsellor, Vernon imparts some sage advice. Not only providing her with the means to make amends, but also by becoming the defining piece of this puzzle which will offer audiences dramatic closure.

This BBC melodramas is one of the more solid slices of entertainment to hit terrestrial television in some time.

Better is available on BBC iPlayer now.