The Responder S2 on BBC One review: brutal and brilliant cop show gives Martin Freeman the role of his career

 (BBC / Dancing Ledge)
(BBC / Dancing Ledge)

You wait ages for the second series of a realistic, gritty yet funny BBC cop drama not set in London to turn up, and then two come along at the same time.

Following hot on the heels of season two of Blue Lights, the word-of-mouth hit police show set in Belfast, is season two of The Responder, the word-of-mouth hit police show set in Liverpool.

Yet, if the format sounds similar, they are both thrillingly, defiantly unique, brilliantly written, and both deserving of all the accolades they’ve been receiving.

The Responder actually came first, with season one arriving in 2022. In contrast to Blue Lights, it is a star vehicle – though with his buzz cut, clipped beard, and thick scouse accent, the Martin Freeman we know from Sherlock and The Office quickly melts away.

Some have suggested that night patrolman Chris Carson is the finest role of his career so far – he won an International Emmy for the first series – and on the evidence of this second series, it’s hard to disagree. He, and the show, have only got better.

It picks up six months after the events of the previous series, and takes its time to put us back in the squad car. At first we see Chris in a support group, clearly searching for help. As the ‘previously on’ montage reminds us at the start, he was hanging on by the end: “I’m a f***ing shell. The job has ruined me.”

Written by former police responder Tony Schumacher, the first series was also his debut script. If that was head-scratchingly good for a newbie, this one is even better, delving deeper into the characters, showing but never telling, and creating an all-too believable world falling apart around them.

What really stands out about Schumacher’s writing is that he not only combines thrilling drama with genuine humour, but he has an ability to gut punch the audience with devastating sadness when they’re least expecting it.

Adelayo Adedayo as Rachel (BBC / Dancing Ledge)
Adelayo Adedayo as Rachel (BBC / Dancing Ledge)

Whether it’s the support group member laughing about ringing Babestation for a chat about the weather, before switching the mood entirely as he implores the priest running the group for help, “I’m so lonely.”

Or the thief who picks up dog mess to keep the police back: a brilliantly funny scene until the desperate man begs the officers to give him some food. “I’m starving here.” Schumacher has a habit of leaving the viewer winded.

As well as the cop thriller plot, unfolding as Chris is inexorably drawn into a possibly corrupt drugs bust for a colleague, this series tackles various other issues, and is particularly preoccupied with fathers and children.

Not only how Chris is trying to be a good dad to his daughter after separating from her mum; the show also introduces Chris’s dad, played by the extraordinary Bernard Hill, and a lot of things start falling into place about the issues the younger man carries around.

Every character is isolated – there are again shades of Taxi Driver in the cinematography as characters sit isolated in their cars, wrought faces smudgy through the streaked windscreens, illuminated just by the blue and red lights of the flashing police bulbs. Others sit alone in the dark at home, slumped in chairs or on the stairs.

The returning actors around Freedman are all top notch too, all bringing their characters’ own personal pain to the screen with poignancy. Adelayo Adedayo as Chris’ former beat partner Rachel is particularly good. The fallout of being the victim of abuse only leaves her more isolated. Her brittle performance, of someone trying to mask the fact they’re coming apart at the seams, is beautifully rendered.

Other characters it’s great to see again include Josh Finan as the scally Marco, now with parental responsibilities of his own, Emily Fairn as his thieving, dealing mate Casey, and MyAnna Buring as Chris’ wife.

The Responder provides all the thrills and spills audiences seek from a police drama. But it also brings something else.

It has been called a state-of-the-nation piece – though its writer and stars are adamant that wasn’t what they were setting out to do – and it really shines a light on the disintegration of social ties everywhere we look today. Though it pulls off the trick through character rather than clunky exposition or tub-thumping rhetoric. An extraordinary feat.

A second season cop out? not a chance.

The Responders airs on BBC One on Sundays at 9pm and on iPlayer