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NOT-COMICS: Why Abhay Loves The Shadow Line, and Why You Should Too.

Abhay Khosla

This is about a television show sorta in the crime-conspiracy thriller genre, that aired on the BBC between May 5, 2011 to June 16, 2011. For those of you who do not have access to the BBC, this may not be helpful for you unless you’re one of those people who somehow watch television shows from other countries on some sort of magical appliance found in your home and/or office, and do not have any moral qualm in using said appliance to do so.

* * *

First, let me start by saying Gatehouse.

I am going to try not to spoil THE SHADOW LINE, but it’s going to be very difficult for me not to. Here’s the most non-spoiler-y bit I can do: I absolutely LOVED the SHADOW LINE, and you might too. After I’d finished watching, I spent a night doing nothing else but writing emails to a wide variety of people I’ve known in my life, and begged them– begged them– to watch it.

This is me writing to you. I recommend you stop here and just go watch it as fresh as possible– it’s only 7 episodes, it’s summertime, why spoil any bit of a mystery show for yourself– why not watch it completely unspoiled, and there ain’t barely shit else on TV…

***

THE SHADOW LINE starts with a simple high-concept premise: a mobster has been murdered, and both the police and his fellow mobsters begin to investigate whodunit. Chiwetel Ejiofor investigates on behalf of the police; Christopher Eccleston investigates on behalf of the gangsters.

But: THE SHADOW LINE is not a mystery show.

What is it? Well, for starters, due warning– it is SLOW. It takes its time, with every single scene, starting right from the opening scene where two beyond-minor characters spend nearly SEVEN minutes standing over a dead body, talking. Seven minutes is an exceptionally long time for a television show to spend on any one scene– that it’s spent with two total non-entities announces THE SHADOW LINE’s intentions from the start: the show will be moving at its own pace; it will sometimes be cryptic; it will not be following the “rules.” Everything will be careful and deliberate– oh, but with one exception. The violence. There are moments of violence in the show that will happen before you’re ready for them, and will be over before you completely processed what you’re seeing– maybe too much like life.

If I had to describe the experience of watching THE SHADOW LINE, the description I would use is “dawning horror.” The sometimes of it (not every time but at least sometimes…): I wouldn’t always understand what was going on at first, until slowly, slowly, slowly, oh no, oh no, and… finally WHAM. (Well: way more than one WHAM on some of these episodes).

It’s got cops, it’s got gangsters, but for me…? It’s a horror show.

“I imagined Edward Hopper painting a crimescene.”

– THE SHADOW LINE creator Hugo Blick.

The mistake I’ve seen in other reviews is to compare the SHADOW LINE to THE WIRE. “Cops, gangsters– got it, THE WIRE.” No. No. The reason THE WIRE was the best show of all time (and I’m one of the people for who it is)… Watching THE WIRE, I never have any doubt that it’s showing me a very accurate depiction of how a segment of the world actually operates.  THE WIRE was set in a world crafted by journalists, motivated to explain the world they’d reported on to the audience. And even if you disagree with what THE WIRE was saying, for me, it’s just been a helpful show. When numbers are cited by officials, when politicians point to this index or that, I understand what’s happening in a different way having seen THE WIRE, and I think better way thanks especially to the idea from THE WIRE of “juking the stats.” (Heck: even comics– what are crossovers and spoilers in newspapers and Deaths of Fake Spidermans but juking the stats?). THE WIRE has a villain and that villian was institutions, bureaucracy.

That is not THE SHADOW LINE because THE SHADOW LINE is not trying to be journalistic, it is not trying to accurately capture a sample of world for its audience’s edification, and its lessons are not “helpful”– they’re not lessons at all, more warnings, omens, sighs of resignation.  No, for me, it’s a horror show, just one without vampires or zombies or Jim Belushi. It’s more like the worst kind of nightmare– the kind that seems real. Our lives are slow, and the show is slow, so you want to believe what’s happening is “realistic”– but what’s real slips away little by little with THE SHADOW LINE, and everything becomes menace, decay, disease, death.  Lots of that last one.

There’s this constant poetry to everything in the show: drug dealers hide their drugs in flowers, the lead detective has a name like Jonah Gabriel on him, Satan himself is dressed like a “fucking vicar,” etc., etc. To miss that poetry is to not have seen the show– which was the case with some negative reviews the show got, from reviewers applying criteria of how much the show matched their dull reality, a criteria that I think the show itself didn’t invite and isn’t the right frame to place around it.  (Uh: it got good ones too; opinions have varied). But it’s an easy error because the monster of the show– and I very much use the word monster instead of villain on purpose to distinguish it from THE WIRE… That monster is very real and very much a part of our world– the monster is corruption.

This image flitted around the internet the other day. That’s about all that happens, though– images float around, temporarily. Oh, I had another thing I liked, an article called “Why Cops Aren’t Whistleblowers.” Here’s the story: a DEA agent gets into a car accident with another man, so he beats him to the point of having brain-damage. So the Kansas City PD does their very best to cover it up– except for one cop, who refuses to go along with the cover-up, Max Seifert. What happens next? Max Seifert is forced to take early retirement, loses his pension and loses his retirement health insurance. How about the cops involved in the cover-up (at least according to this article)?

  • Ronald Miller, Kansas City’s police chief, is now the police chief in Topeka.
  • Steven Culp, then Kansas City’s deputy police chief, is now executive director of the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training.
  • Officer Robert Lane was a councilman for the town of Edwardsville– well, until he got convicted of participating in a ticket-fixing scheme.

Bad guys win; good guys lose; evil will prevail, and trying to pretend otherwise is either a sucker’s bet or a con.  When in doubt, do the wrong thing and prosper.  Every character in THE SHADOW LINE– cop, journalist, gangster, mother, whoever– all of them are tested by corruption; all of them try their damnedest to find a different way to live in a corrupt world.  Aww, man, and the show’s answer to the whodunit is so perfectly attuned to that– I don’t want to spoil it, but… It’s a show that just invites unpacking for me days later– “Oh, when that guy said THAT, he didn’t realize that meant he ALSO shouldn’t have trusted SO-AND-SO, and ho’damn.”

So many small lines pay-off, so many of the themes work themselves out in so many different little ways in an episode. The terrible bits of getting old, the value of truth (and rarity thereof), generational conflict, the intersection of work and morality… The actual plotty-crime bits get lost in all of these big themes sometimes. Honestly, there are parts of the plot I couldn’t possibly hope to explain to anyone, that I totally don’t understand– big mysteries of the show, even. There’s a couple very jolting ellipses in the final episode in particular that I had to stop and rewind for. But I guess I was a very sympathetic audience to the show’s themes, and didn’t really care about those particular details by that point…

(Though the show did have one thing that grated incredibly, of at least one character saying the words “The Shadow Line” out loud…?  I hate when a character in a movie says the title of the movie out loud.  I always just want them to turn to the camera and scream “Get it?  GET IT?”  So lame!)

“If there is one thing that I constantly revisit, it’s isolation. And how obsession becomes about heroism, and how questionable that heroism can be.”

– creator Hugo Blick.

It’s a very writer-y show– long, long fuck-off long dialogue scenes,  5 zillion minor characters, and my favorite– slow “let’s just watch these methodical characters do horrible things in a very methodical way” scenes. (If you don’t love that first half hour of HARD EIGHT or heist movies or the bits of Joe Mantegna explaining a con in HOUSE OF GAMES, Ed O’Neill’s scene in THE SPANISH PRISONER, you may not get the same charge out of that kind of thing that I do but… I love that kinda “here’s how you do the wrong thing in step-by-step detail” shit).

But I should also note what a goddamn fun cast this show has. Chris Eccleston, always so likeable though I couldn’t say what it is that he does that makes him that way, exactly;  Rafe Spall, chewing scenery like he’s competing with Heath Ledger– a lot of fun, Spall; Chiwetel Ejiofor, with big passionate monologues; and oh, Stephen Rae, oh man! Also: the show is damn pretty, in that way that it’s still weird to me how pretty TV can be now, and… and…

“It starts as a police procedural, quite quickly gets rid of that – our interest was not of the police side – it quickly develops into a crime drama and then it evolves further into a spy thriller or a conspiracy thriller. It’s constantly changing and the tools we use to keep the audience’s attention with gripping ideas change as well. It wasn’t something where we just said, this is a crime thriller.”

— creator Hugo Blick.

And I just really, really enjoyed it so… Look: I may be overstating my case– I’ve maybe overhyped and oversold this show.  It’s not the best show I’ve ever seen or anything– THE WIRE is still THE WIRE, the king stays the king, and there are other shows I care about more.  It’s got its negatives– some lines of dialogue truly land with a thud; at least one action sequence is from an entirely different universe than the rest of the show; there’s one actor I didn’t particularly like much.  THE SHADOW LINE is a show that sometimes is so … so into what it’s doing that … There are moments where I maybe would just have to smile at how big and gaudy and ostentatious and portentious it was all getting. But oh, there were enough moments that wiped that grin right the fuck off my face that I wanted to write this. Look: my precious, precious MAD MEN’s not on, and I just haven’t gotten into your HBO/AMC shows about witches on broomsticks and skeksis and whatever else you guys are into now.  I tend to be very comedy oriented when I watch TV, so I haven’t watched a good drama series in a while– so I maybe reacted strongly to this in a way that people who have been consuming a steadier diet of television drama than I have wouldn’t get. But… it just really, really hit with me, so here’s me recommending something as my pudgy little fingers can recommend something, I guess.

(NOTE:  if you haven’t seen the show and any of this has been convincing to you, please don’t read the comment section, in case anyone puts anything in there that spoils the show for you anymore than I already have. It’s a suspense thriller show– please don’t ruin that for yourself– I would hate to think that I somehow would be responsible for that. I will delete any comment that seems too spoiler-y– I totally will do that– but I’m not by a computer 24 hours a day. Please be careful).

Thus, in conclusion, and as a final point, Gatehouse.

9 Responses to “ NOT-COMICS: Why Abhay Loves The Shadow Line, and Why You Should Too. ”

  1. Abhay, I respect the fuck out of your opinion, but I hated the Shadow Line with gusto. I’ll try and avoid spoilers here but I will fail.

    My main problem was that all the principals were exactly what they pretended to be. [ABHAY: I'm taking out your first two examples as they were too spoiler-y but I'll leave your point-- especially because I don't actually agree with it! I'll leave the next one since it's cryptic.] And Gatehouse is Gatehouse, but in light of the ending, do any of Gatehouse’s actions in the first three episodes make sense? No, no they don’t.

    It’s not the Wire. It’s not a noir. It has nothing particularly interesting to say about crime or cops that a dozen better shows haven’t said better.

    And if it’s a horror film, it’s a shitty one because no one knows to be afraid of [ABHAY: I should take this example out; sorry to cut this up and thanks for commenting but... I really truly want to avoid spoilers in the first comment...? Sorry] (which is a great scene.)

  2. @Mojo-for trying to avoid spoilers, you certainly managed to blow quite a few of them.

    I’m with Abhay here–this show is beautifully awkward, sort of lurching from scene to scene or plot to plot at times and then suddenly slipping from peaceable to tense to mouth hanging open disbelief. There was one episode–next to last? either that or five–that hit me twice in the gut in about five minutes.

    You’re right about it being pretty (the boat stuff in the last ep, a nice wilderness shot, and (strangely maybe) a mother’s house), but what most impressed me was its effectiveness. Eccleston, Spall, Ejiofor, and everyone else hit basically every mark they needed to and more. Every bit, from Spall’s utter singlemindedness to Ejiofor’s, what, desperation? They brought their a-game. It all clicks.

    And Gatehouse, cripes. “Beep.”

    I liked this a lot. I think it was your recommendation on Tumblr that got me to watch it, and I don’t regret any of it. I’ll probably go through it again later this year, in fact.

  3. And hey, I feel bad about being all gutting comments on this one– because the show is over in its actual country of origin so it’s a little uncool of me, though in my defense, I wear very interesting underwear, so I’m hoping my cool levels all balance out, karmically. So if anyone wants to email me their more spoiler-y complaints about the show and why I’m wrong, about life, y’all are welcome to do that though I’m pretty slow about responding to e-mail. I think I have an e-mail on this site at, what, abhay at savagecritic.com…?

    Oh and glad to hear you enjoyed it, David!

  4. I’m at ep 5 and messaging people every day to watch it.

    Nobody knows about it and nobody will watch it. They’re all in the UK and they didn’t even know it existed.

    I’m moving house at the moment so won’t be able to finish it until the weekend.

    I haven’t finished it yet so don’t know why people would hate it. I hope I don’t. I’ve really enjoyed it so far.

  5. I thought it felt like a response to The Wire and Red Riding, at least it felt like it was pushing against the reportage of the Wire and the impressionistic Big Numbers shit going on in Red Riding, but stuck with some of the central conceits of both. Like, down to specifics, the gay kid, Rattalack, who shows up in the middle of the series seems to be a very specific stab at one-upping Omar without the judgemental “manliness” of Omar’s introduction. (How amazing was that kid? I think he and Rafe Spall kind of need a spin-off/sequel). The pacing of episodes, where things never happen as tags, seems to be a very Wire thing for me too. Even Deadwood and Breaking Bad kind of stick to the traditional tv structure of when big moments happen. In this it was whenever they needed to.

    I did think it had a real problem with female characters, though. And I know being a cop show it kind of has to, and with an ensemble like this something’s gotta suffer so you can get have abso-fucking-lutely amazing characters show up for a 20 minute scene and then never appear again on the show, but the women are the thinnest characters. Especially the partner who has like, heavy lifting to do. I mean, they wrote a better gay character than Omar but they can’t write a female cop?

    Gatehouse makes up for it, though. Gatehouse Gatehouse Gatehouse Gatehouse Gatehouse. And Glickman.

    (I also started watching this because you and Tucker were both talking about it. I love it. thx)

  6. “I did think it had a real problem with female characters, though”

    That was the one actor I couldn’t warm to, the female cop partner– I’m not sure if that was because of the actor herself or that she wasn’t written well (her introductory scene, which is like… scene #2 almost made me stop watching the show altogether– the false-ness of it).

    They threw a moment here or there to a couple of the actresses, but nothing with an iota of the juice that the guys got (or maybe grabbed for themselves, in the case of whoever-that-was playing the gay kid).

  7. I think the six or so of us that Abhay tipped off should have just Skyped in every week to record 2 Girls/1 Cup/Roots reaction videos of us just yelling “GATEHOUSE!”.

  8. [...] is second to none. And this atmosphere is not entirely related to the crime or even noir genres. As this excellent blog post put it: the monster of the show– and I very much use the word monster instead of villain on [...]

  9. I hated this show. I just finished it. I wish I quit way back.
    I kept thinking it would get better but it just got worse. Totally depressing in every way. I would not want to live in a world if it was like this one. Horrible

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