Last year the phrase “ambient television” was coined to describe a category of inoffensive, picturesque and essentially undemanding shows, such as Netflix’s Emily in Paris: programmes that could be experienced as background while the viewer scrolled through social media. Now, with the sixth season of the BBC police drama Line of Duty well into its stride, it seems viewers are being presented with the opposite: TV that not only requires their undivided concentration, but also invites them actively to turn detective.
This is not so much ambient as adrenalising television; miss a detail, and you’re lost. The discourse around the show has become almost as lively as the show itself. Theories are shared and plot predictions aired on social media, while fan podcasts – such as the BBC’s own Obsessed with Line of Duty, and the irreverent Shrine of Duty – dissect each episode in the long and deliciously frustrating week between broadcasts.
Until recently, Line of Duty would unhesitatingly have been called an example of “appointment TV”, its cliffhangers compelling the viewer to watch each episode on linear television at the moment of broadcast. Now, there is a new twist: viewers are watching live, but via iPlayer, so that key scenes can be paused and replayed lest elusive dialogue and crucial clues be missed. The pandemic has played its part too: the BBC put all previous seasons of the show on iPlayer recently, a perfect chance for a locked-down population to binge, or to do some Line of Duty “revision”.
When the drama began on BBC Two nine years ago, not much of the culture surrounding the show could have been anticipated. At the time, the immediate point of difference from run-of-the-mill police procedurals was its aesthetic of verismo – plunging viewers into an authentic-seeming world of arcane police jargon, procedure and acronyms. This aura of naturalism has provided the backdrop for increasingly wild and rococo plot departures, and a growing self-referentiality that is itself rather enjoyable, not least in the appearance of familiar turns of phrase (such as Supt Ted Hastings’ trademark “Mother of God!”); or in echoes of long-gone scenes in previous seasons.
The plots, these days, seem to bear little relation to the grim reality of policing violent crime. But what they do touch on is integrity in public life. Not for nothing did Sir Keir Starmer joke in prime minister’s questions this week that the Greensill affair might require a Ted Hastings to untangle it. Line of Duty appeals not just because of the outrageous plotting, but because it touches a raw nerve in British society. When Hastings rails against the fact of “a barefaced liar promoted to our highest office”, the character is talking of his own fictional police force. Viewers, though, may see a wider picture.