Criminal season two review – stripped down police drama is catnip for mystery lovers

Rebecca Nicholson

Criminal (Netflix) has returned to shake up the ever-familiar police procedural once again by stripping it back to bare-bone basics. As in the first season, each episode deals with a different case. There is no scene-setting or multiple locations or backstories. We do not see what has happened; we only hear about it, from the person being questioned. We go straight in to the middle of an interview, set mostly in one room. It is all neon lights and video screens, crackling sound and closeups. It is a podcast with bells and whistles and the frequent air of a Line of Duty interrogation scene.

This time, there are four episodes rather than three and, even though the first run was an international affair, this is UK only. Following in the footsteps of Hayley Atwell, Youssef Kerkour and David Tennant (in training for Des with a warm-up creep show), are Sophie Okonedo, Kit Harington, Sharon Horgan and Kunal Nayyar, shedding his Big Bang Theory past to play a terrifying killer.

The two strongest episodes are the bookends. Okonedo is brilliantly unsettling in the opener as Julia, the wife of a convicted murderer, whose modus operandi involved a penchant for his younger male students. She is called in to shed some light on the disappearance of another student, Luca, who was booked on a flight to Italy, but never made it home. Rochenda Sandall is back as Vanessa, a junior conducting the interview in order to gather background information. The rapport she builds with Julia leads to unexpected revelations, and the rest of the force have to rethink their approach.

There is a lot of this. You think it is going one way, then it lurches in another direction, then another, then another, until the detectives home in like a sniper and take their shot. The biggest talking point will be Harington’s episode, in which the Game of Thrones actor casts off any residual earthy charm to play Alex, a smarmy, slick estate agent who is accused of rape by a junior colleague after a drunken night out. He is aggressive and repellent, and Harington delivers that kind of rat-a-tat entitlement with pitch-perfect precision – tapping the table, pointing his finger, speaking with patronising, weary contempt. You get the sense, though, that the story would like to be a little more bold, but ends up tying itself in knots in an attempt to be all things to all viewers.

Such moral murkiness is at the heart of Criminal, and is why it works as well as it does, when it does. The question posed in each episode is a simple one: who is responsible? But it is posed in all manner of ways and leaves it open to all sorts of interpretations. This forces the detectives to discuss their own moral and ethical obligations in a way that is not entirely convincing, even if it does add to the heightened staginess of it all. Horgan is fantastic as Danielle, a vigilante – although she would object to that term – who entraps and then exposes paedophiles. Does she enjoy it? Is she “leading them on” by sending suggestive messages as a 40-year-old woman, pretending to be 14? Why doesn’t she trust the police to do what she feels she has to do? It is a meaty exploration of a thorny modern dilemma, though it does undermine its maturity somewhat with a preposterous soapy twist.

The pleasure, really, is in the performances, and it saves the best until last. Nayyar is Sandeep, a businessman serving a life sentence for murdering a woman, who attempts to negotiate with the officers as if conducting a meeting. In theory, this should not be the creepiest episode – it is less mysterious and uncertain than the others – but it is chilling to the bone, thanks in large part to Nayyar, who plays it still and steady, until he doesn’t. In a strong, if slightly uneven season, his episode is the standout.

Although it has its moments of silliness (I couldn’t hear the line, “Word’s got out, daddy’s a twisted man” without saying it again in the voice of a 1960s pirate radio DJ), Criminal continues to provide a pleasingly fresh take on the police drama. I was swept up in the claustrophobia and the theatrics of it all. Leaving the viewer to work out who is telling the truth, and what version of it they are telling, should be catnip to anyone who loves a good mystery.

Criminal is on Netflix