Police brutality, racism, colorism, poverty, fascism, miscarriages of justice, elder care, misogyny: Apple TV+’s newest drama “Criminal Record” leaves few modern-day issues untouched. But despite boasting captivating performances from co-leads Cush Jumbo and Peter Capaldi, its writing, cinematography, and direction relegate it to Apple’s ever-growing pile of uninspired dramas.
The premise isn’t altogether disinteresting: A terrified woman, refusing to identify herself, calls from a phone box to a domestic violence hotline, claiming through tears that her abusive boyfriend is responsible for a cold case murder, for which another man is serving a 24-year sentence. Before she reveals anything else, CCTV footage shows her being frightened by some roving youths on bicycles, and she runs away.
Detective Sergeant June Lenker (Jumbo, convincing in the part) is forwarded the case by the hotline and her boss. A driven rookie cop, wanting to change the Metropolitan Police’s culture from the inside, Lenker dives in, researching the inmate the caller referenced. Her efforts lead her to Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Haggerty (Capaldi), who secured a guilty plea from Errol Mathis (Tom Moutchi) in the murder of his girlfriend Adelaide Burrows. It is clear from the moment Lenker mentions the case in the context of the hotline call, that Haggerty is wary. It is possible that he is worried about his legacy, but it becomes rapidly evident that he worked with and is trying to protect a fairly large operation. Thus begins a back-and-forth between Lenker, a mixed-race woman who is easily trotted out by the bosses as part of the Met’s diversity and inclusion efforts, and Haggerty, who is driven by more than just prejudice.
Credit where credit is due: Jumbo and Capaldi bring considerable vigor and authenticity to their roles. In a recent interview the latter mentions that the pair chose not to rehearse, relying more on reacting to each other in the moment. This approach is evident in their performances, which veer from adversarial to cordial to even mentor and mentee. June is a fairly standard female cop character: tough as nails, duking it out in a historically white, male-dominated workplace as both a woman and a black person, unwilling to compromise her toughness by being too emotional. Fortunately, Jumbo adds necessary nuance to this portrayal via doubts about Lenker’s loyalties, fears that her son is and will continue to be racially profiled by her colleagues, and anxieties that her white, liberal second husband Leo’s (Stephen Campbell Moore, always welcome) understanding of her plight is blinkered by his own privilege.
Equally compelling is Capaldi as Haggerty, cast very much against type. Best known as the 12th Doctor on the long-running British sci-fi show “Doctor Who,” or as the freely foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker on “The Thick Of It,” Capaldi here relies on reining in his usual exuberance. Haggerty is juggling a vast network of secrets, and at first, trying to keep his cool, merely creates physical distance between himself and Lenker, walking away from her to request a cup of tea, or standing behind a chair while she remains seated. It’s quite a treat to watch Capaldi create an arc for Haggerty through body language: after attempting physical distance, he tries stillness, pausing in thought to consider his options, unblinking for what feels like an eternity as he assesses the danger he and his cop buddies are in. His blue eyes never widen, never betray alarm, but the visible vein in his forehead betrays his stress levels. No one would doubt Haggerty’s confidence at work, but there is a definite weariness, just the slightest stoop of the shoulders, as he attends to Lisa, his neglected adult daughter, who has suffered at his hands from more than just plain old cop-as-absent-parent syndrome.
But while the acting between the leads is spot-on, the writing for them and everyone else is not. Moore’s role as Leo is woefully underdeveloped, as is Zoë Wanamker’s turn as Maureen, Lenker’s mother, who hates the police for their daily harassment of her late husband, a Black man, and is starting to exhibit symptoms of dementia. Detective Sergeants Kim Cardwell (Shaun Dooley) and Tony Guilfoyle (Charlie Creed-Miles) are right out of dirty cop central casting: Haggerty’s best friends, the pair preempt complaints about their prejudice with “I’m not having a go, but …” (i.e., “I’m not racist, but …”), and do not bother to conceal their contempt for the Met’s efforts to overhaul their workplace. Similarly, while the tension of Haggerty’s secrets gives Capaldi something to obscure, he simply has less complexities to work with once his lies begin to unravel. Aysha Kala, as Errol’s lawyer Sonya Singh, could have used far more to do, as the actor is practically bursting at the seams with untapped firepower.
“Criminal Record” fails on two more significant fronts: first, the cinematography. A lot of Apple TV’s shows look the same, featuring zero color grading and dim blue-grey lighting. It’s as though someone at Apple has come up with a look and every show must hew to it. It would have been easier to look past the dull visuals, however, if the writing did not cause an even more significant issue later in the show. The writers try to explain, and partially absolve, Haggerty’s decision-making by depicting his bereavement after the loss of his wife, pressure he was under from his superiors after a series of riots, that he cared about his friends and had to protect them. The friends in question are Nazis. If your friend is a Nazi, and instead of outing and cutting off your Nazi friends, you dispatch them to do your bidding for decades, then you too are a Nazi. Multiple characters bemoan policing culture—“It’s in the walls,” muses June’s colleague. And despite the attempts to make June look like the exception to the rule, she bizarrely faces no real consequences for her ethical violations either nor do her efforts to do the right thing change even a jot of policing protocol. Even Jake Peralta had the good sense to quit the Nine-Nine.
Entire series screened for review. Premieres today on Apple TV.