Line of Duty is a very silly show.
Often billed as "realistic" because it employs police jargon and lengthy interrogation scenes, the drama (now on BBC1, imported from BBC2) did start out fairly tame. But ever since writer Jed Mercurio pushed Jessica Raine out of a window – an act committed by a male assailant inexplicably disguised as a female nurse – the series has grown increasingly ludicrous, culminating in last year's wild climax that saw devious "Dot" Cottan gunned down after a 007-esque chase sequence.
But – and let's be clear about this – the silliness is not a bad thing. As Line of Duty has grown more unhinged, it's also become more and more addictive. Its fourth series opener may be its most insane episode to date, and also, quite possibly, its most thrilling.
This latest run has been talked up as "a new chapter" and while the tale of the Caddy and his criminal web have (seemingly) been put to bed, this is very much the series we know and love, telling a twisty-turny tale at a lightning pace.
We open with a heart-pounding kidnapping sequence – a young woman mown down and bundled into the back of a car by a masked attacker – and before the opening credits are done rolling, a fleet of police officers led by one DCI Roz Huntley are sweeping the streets, a pursuit gets underway and a house has been engulfed in flames.
This year's big-name guest star Thandie Newton is a strong choice for the part of Roz. The BAFTA winner brings the same blend of steel and vulnerability that she displayed as Westworld's Maeve, an effective balance that means you're never quite sure what her character's going to do next, or what her agenda really is.
Roz's high-profile investigation into a string of abductions and murders leads her to Michael Farmer (Scott Reid) and if she was going to pin the crime on someone, Michael – a convicted sex offender with learning difficulties and no alibi – would be the perfect patsy.
But did she, in full possession of the facts, fit up the wrong man, or – under pressure and having convinced herself that she'd found the right man – did she simply ignore what she considered to be the unnecessary interference of an overly-officious colleague?
It's all a little bit Making a Murderer through the lens of "alternative facts" and Michael Gove's famous disdain for "experts" – but as ever, it all boils down to one big question: is AC-12's latest quarry corrupt, and if so, to what extent?
So far, so familiar, but the big twist of this opening episode is that, while Newton's the headline-grabbing name, it's Jason Watkins who commands your attention throughout.
Like Newton, he's canny casting – known as much for Trollied or W1A as he is for The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies. He's not an actor you'd automatically assume is either villain or comic relief, which again allows Mercurio to toy with our expectations of who Tim Ifield might be.
As it turns out, Tim – the forensic co-ordinator on Martin Farmer's case and whistle-blower of Roz's alleged corruption – might be the real villain of the piece. And though the episode's absorbing throughout – fast-paced, and never getting bogged down in its intricacies – it's in an utterly bonkers final eight minutes that this opener truly comes alive.
A frustrated Roz decides to pay Tim a visit at home and things spiral quickly out of control. In a nail-biting sequence, a verbal clash between the two escalates into a physical confrontation, with Mercurio – also on directing duties – teasing the oncoming violence with shots of sizzling hot pans, knives, Tim tightly wringing a tea towel in his hands...
In the aftermath, Roz lays prone, apparently dead, with Tim her accidental executioner. But just as you start to believe that Mercurio's pulled his old trick again, offing his star name in the first episode, a final twist reveals that she's alive after all – though who knows for how much longer, with Tim bearing down on her with an electric saw in hand?
These final moments are almost hysterically tense – the ultimate proof that Mercurio and his team have nailed their winning formula, knowing exactly how to walk the tightrope of being enjoyably absurd without ever losing their footing.
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