‘The Shadow Line’ with Christopher Eccleston and Chiwetel Ejiofor debuts tomorrow night on BBC Two

Christopher Eccleston and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the same TV thing? I would have been so there even if I hadn’t already had a chance to preview the first episode of this seven-part drama. (It debuts tomorrow, Thursday, May 5, at 9pm on BBC Two, with subsequent episodes airing over the next six Thursdays. See the BBC’s official site for the series for more info.) I know, I know: we just talked the other day about how there’s too much crime drama on TV… but this isn’t quite like anything you’ll have seen before. It’s an acidic, noirish look at a murder from two sides: from the perspective of the cops trying to solve the mystery, and from the perspective of the victim’s associates, who also need to know who offed him.
Because the murder victim is a drug kingpin, and his people are now scrambling to keep the organization running. On the one hand, there’s his terrifying son (Rafe Spall), who wants in but cannot possibly be allowed any responsibility whatsoever, he’s that insane. And there’s Joseph Bede (Christopher Eccleston), a nice, respectable sort of bloke who has spent years and a ton of his own money building up a flower-import business and was about to come on as a major partner, his clean business an excellent cover for the requisite drug smuggling. Bede has a lot to lose if the enterprise falls apart. He’s a lot more sympathetic than he might otherwise be in part because of his touching relationship with his wife (Lesley Sharp).

On the cop side, there’s DI Jonah Gabriel (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who’s just come back on the force after getting shot in the head by a bad guy… the bullet’s still lodged in his brain, and he can’t remember that actually went down. And yet he’s a lot less sympathetic than he might otherwise be in part because of the implications that something dodgy was going on at the time he was shot.

The Shadow Line looks to be not a police procedural — in one startling moment, the procedural stuff is actually glossed over by a cop who brings Gabriel up to speed on their murder scene by saying “Blah blah blah” — but a character study… a psychological CSI, maybe. Hints of political corruption get dropped into this first episode, but it’s the deep intrigue of the two main characters that hooked me. Who are they, really? We simply have no idea, at least not right away. I have a lot of ideas about what’s going on and where it’s all going, and I get the sense that I’m probably hugely wrong. And I can’t wait to find out how wrong I might be.

Obviously this intrigue was a draw for the talent, too. I saw this first episode at a special BAFTA screening, and afterward came a Q&A with Eccleston and writer-director-producer Hugo Blick. Eccleston said, at one point:

Me and Rafe kept reading the script between takes to figure out what was going on. And we still didn’t know.

And Blick confirmed:

None of them end up where you think they’re gonna go.

I asked Blick about the beautiful stark palette, and he explained that he wanted something that looked

like Edward Hopper if he painted crime scenes

which is indeed very much what it looks like. He also claimed visual and storytelling influences from “70s American conspiracy thrillers” and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, both very fair comparisons based on what I’ve seen so far. (I’ll be curious to see if the show feels as visually dramatic on television as it did projected in BAFTA’s very nice Princess Anne Theatre.)

I’ll be watching the series unfold, and will comment more when it’s finished.

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