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'Criminal' Examines the Psychological Over the Physical of Investigations
September 20, 2019  | By David Hinckley
 


Most police procedurals, for obvious reasons, focus on the most dramatic and physically engaging parts of the criminal apprehension process. Action scenes, chases, confrontations, sometimes a flash of the crime itself. 

Criminal, a new series launching Friday on Netflix, goes into precisely the opposite direction. 

Criminal spends 90% of each episode in the interrogation room, where we watch a detective team questioning a suspect. 

It's not quite as Spartan as that might sound. We also have an occasional scene in front of the vending machine in the police station, and a few glimpses of the corridor outside the interrogation room, when the questioners come out to take a breather or pick up a new piece of ammunition.

Still, we're mostly looking at talking heads here, a verbal rather than physical showdown, and while every moment isn't Shakespeare, it turns out to be a fascinating way of explaining and dissecting a criminal case. 

Criminal also takes a different tack in its setup. Its 12 episodes include three each from four different countries – the UK, France, Germany, and Spain – all in the native language of that country.

Okay, on one level this simply reflects the fact that Netflix has become a global TV service, presenting reams of programming for multiple countries and cultures.

It also reflects both the similarities and differences in police procedures across those cultures.

Mainly, it works as television. In a medium that has always rewarded action, downshifting to a room where the action revolves around an exchange of words doesn't feel here like a gimmick. 

It feels fresh, and it suggests that in at least some investigations, this can be the tipping point, the moment when a resistant suspect realizes that the cops have him or her.

That can result in a torrential unburdening, or it can trigger sullen silence. In any case, everyone understands what has just happened, and Criminal scores by dramatizing exactly how the cops get to that point.

In the opening UK episode, David Tennant plays Edgar, a professor charged with murdering his stepdaughter. We don't even know that much at the beginning, however. All we know is that he's being questioned by Detective Sergeant Tony Myerscough (Lee Ingleby) and that he keeps calmly saying, "No comment."

Tony's boss and the leader of the interrogation team, Natalie Hobbs (Katherine Kelly), watches on monitors outside the room. When we join the action, Edgar has been questioned for almost 24 hours, and everyone – except, seemingly, Edgar and Tony – is feeling worn down. 

From that point, with the help of some strategic background music, Criminal builds the tension. What can Tony say? Will Edgar ever respond? 

The viewer, meanwhile, picks up details and a small handful of critical hints through glancing references that the viewer, like the cops, must piece together.  

Along the way, Criminal tacks a few incidental office subplots onto the main story, and those, honestly, seem as trivial as they are sweet. 

The show's strength lies in showing the importance of words, and how they can determine whether a detective team closes or loses a case. It acknowledges the other essential elements in the investigative chain and suggests they could be in vain if this link can't be forged. 

It's a nice change of pace. Brain 9, adrenalin 3. 

 
 
 
 
 
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