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With “another week of nights stretching out” in front of him, police response officer Chris Carson (Martin Freeman) knows he is “going to crack” soon - it’s just a matter of when. As he sees it, his job - heading to the scene after a 999 call - is not “such important work”, as his therapist has tried to soothingly put it in one of their mandatory sessions, which frame the first episode of The Responder. Instead, it has become an arbitrary game of “whack-a-mole, except the moles wear trackies”. He can’t remember the last time he did something good - and when he hisses “if you do this again, I’m going to f**king kill you” at the man who has called him out to the same block of flats twice in one night to arbitrate a dispute over a neighbour’s dog, you believe him.
To say that Chris is burnt out would be an understatement. The frustrations (and sometimes outright trauma) of frontline policing in the face of resource cut after resource cut after resource cut have left him feeling like “a f**king shell”, and his wife Kate (MyAnna Buring) says she can see him “disappearing” in front of her and their little daughter, Tilly (Romi Hyland-Rylands). The fact that Chris has a clandestine arrangement going with old school friend and drug dealer Carl (Ian Hart), sharing the odd bit of intel here, picking up the odd associate there, only complicates matters further - not least when teenage heroin addict Casey (Emily Fairn, scene-stealing in her first TV role) comes careering onto his radar, traipsing around Liverpool with “more coke than you’ve ever seen in your life”.
Also in the equation is Chris’s new policing partner Rachel, a “sprog” from Warrington with just two weeks of experience on the beat, so callow to the reality of the job that she’s an easy target for jibes from the gangs of youths that she’s meant to be policing (“Your boots made you look stupid, and then they heard your accent,” Chris sighs, after a group of scallies has branded her a “wool,” the most low-key devastating of Scouse insults). Her dogged insistence on following the police handbook to the letter conceals a painful and poignant backstory, given major emotional heft thanks to a slow burn performance from Adelayo Adedayo. Skulking on the sidelines (and skulking around Kate at school pick-up time) is his former colleague Ray (Warren Brown), who seems intent on exposing Chris’s dodgy connections at any cost.
The Responder is the first TV project for former Merseyside Police officer Tony Schumacher. Perhaps that’s why it couldn’t feel further from the homogenous, oddly impersonal police dramas that seem to permeate the TV schedules from every angle. Schumacher’s script is obviously infused with lived experience, as well as a hyper-specific sense of place that roots the story in realism and adds a dash of Scouse humour to even its darker moments. “I don’t care if you’re Derek Acorah and he’s your f**king spirit guide, he’s not coming,” Emily’s grandad fumes as her friend Marco (Josh Finan) threatens to disrupt a meeting with an old underworld connection thanks to his unique brand of gormlessness (poor Marco is the butt of some of the show’s best jokes - “18? I thought you were 40,” Chris exclaims during one of their off-kilter heart-to-hearts).
Schumacher has a knack for drawing memorable characters in just a few lines of dialogue (or just in a name, like when a deadpan Marco name-drops a bloke called “Snide Nige” in episode one); there are no parts here that feel underwritten, or that stand around like procedural cardboard cut-outs (even Chris’s therapist gets to transcend type in one brief, bleak moment). And while Freeman’s performance is a real knockout, expertly navigating emotional extremes in an impressively accurate accent, this is far from a one-man show: there is no weak link in this ensemble, with Adedayo and newcomers Fairn and Finan, whose double act is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, proving to be real standouts. Authentic, propulsive, funny and powerful, this already feels like a contender for the best police drama of the year.
The Responder continues on BBC One on January 25 and is available to stream on BBC iPlayer