In his breakout role as Tim, The Office’s amiable, sad-eyed paper salesman, Martin Freeman perfectly captured how an unfulfilling job can turn wit to cynicism, winsomeness into weariness. Twenty years on, Freeman once again finds himself playing a character who’s left feeling drained by the seeming arbitrariness of his work. In new BBC five-parter The Responder, this time he is a profoundly jaded policeman, Chris.
Look past the shorn hair and the heavy Liverpudlian accent, and Chris’s admission that “the job has ruined me . . . I can’t remember the last time I did something good” seems to bear traces of Tim’s own candid reflections about his somnambulant professional life.
There are not many police procedural shows that allow viewers to find parallels between working in a station and a stationery company. But in an oversaturated genre, this unhurried, instant-gratification-resisting drama — created by the former Merseyside officer Tony Schumacher — is one of few that attempts to draw a thick blue line between the no-frills realities of police work and the telegenic thrills that the job is usually reduced to.
Here a drive does not mean a chase, and a death does not necessarily mean an investigation — but it might involve dipping into the deceased’s tobacco stash.
Still, for Chris, the job of night-duty responder is a relentless, glorified game of “whack-a-mole”. To break the monotony and feelings of passivity, Chris moonlights for his childhood friend, Carl, a drug dealer, by ferrying his underlings around town like a kind of taxi driver. “Your life — there’s no point to it”, he says to one passenger.
Chris isn’t really an anti-hero — rather a strong alloy of good and bad copper. Although he’s irascible, quick to violence and still implicated in Liverpool’s criminal underworld (despite having already been demoted for corruption), Freeman convincingly imbues him with an emotional openness that belies his cantankerous fatalism and slightly murky ethics.
On learning that Carl is seeking to harm a girl, Chris puts himself in serious jeopardy to help her flee. Eschewing the strong, silent archetypes, he offers her some earnest paternalistic advice before she leaves. His humanity shines through far more naturally than in The Sopranos-lite therapy scenes that punctuate the narrative.
In aiding her, Chris finally gets that fleeting sense of purpose he’s been craving. Seeing whether he can sustain it throughout the series is an altogether more existential source of tension than can be found in most police thrillers.
On BBC1 from January 24 at 9pm; all episodes available on BBC iPlayer thereafter
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