The Lives of Cops

BBC's Conviction

It’s going to be hard to tell you about Conviction — an excellent British cop drama airing in six parts on BBC America — without giving away a major piece of its dramatic engine, a horrific scene that occurs near the end of the first episode. But I can safely mention that writer Bill Gallagher shines a stark spotlight on the emotional ramifications of police work experienced by the people doing the investigating — what the pressure of a job built on a perceived duty toward eternal vigilance does to the souls of ordinary, flawed men and women. A viewer’s anxiety while watching Conviction doesn’t necessarily spring from a murderer on the loose, but from the decisions made by those tracking down the culprit. In that respect, it feels like a spiritual descendant of the popularPrime Suspect, but even more so the fantastic U.K. crime series Cracker, which starred Robbie Coltrane as a police psychologist whose all-consuming appetite for the weakness of criminals was matched only by a tornado-like disposition toward his own fractured personal life.

Conviction focuses on a homicide team sent to investigate the multiple-knifing death of a 12-year-old girl whose body is found in a public-housing playground. The slaying galvanizes the community, and as we’re introduced to the detectives entrusted to find the killer, we get more than the standard brush-stroke personalities of most police shows. Ray (Nicholas Gleaves) and Chrissie (William Ash) are brothers with not a little sibling rivalry, sparked by older brother Ray’s having recently been made department head. They and their defense attorney sister Beth (Zoe Henry) are not only on opposite sides of the case — she represents a stammering local pervert named Jason Buliegh (Jason Watkins), who is the investigation’s initial focus — but outside of work they must agree on how to deal with their retired cop father Lenny (David Warner), a once bullish lawman of the beat-the-confession-out-of-them variety who is now suffering from Alzheimer’s.

A key theme in the series is the difference in policing methods between generations. Raven-haired Lucy (Laura Fraser) is intelligent but plagued by doubts about her abilities, and is carrying on an affair with an informant, while her middle-aged partner Robert (Reece Dinsdale) has arrived at an almost Zen-like attitude toward crime-solving, at one point reacting to a detainee’s violent head butt with an unsettling calm: “I pushed too far,” he acknowledges. The show’s most explicit dichotomy, however, is the pairing of Chrissie, who is the young, soft, brooding type — fueled by empathy — with hotheaded veteran Joe (Ian Puleston-Davies), a dedicated family man who doesn’t pass up the chance at his own spirited anniversary party to ball-squeeze his teenage daughter’s boyfriend as a warning gesture. It seems Joe has never gotten over the death of a young girl at the hands of someone he once had in custody, and it eventually leads him to disturbingly blur the line between justice and vengeance. When Chrissie gets caught up in Joe’s private hell, Conviction escalates into something legitimately Dostoyevskian in how it picks away at its characters’ consciences. Adding immeasurably to the tension is a restless — but not Dramamine-restless — camera style from directors Marc Munden and David Richards that feels like a marriage between the handheld urgency of a Law and Order and the psychologically based, time-fragmented editing of an indie film.

The acting is across-the-board wonderful, with Puleston-Davies in particular tapping into an unpredictable explosiveness that makes NYPD Blue’s Andy Sipowicz seem like a schoolyard bully. Special mention, though, must be made of that venerable ghoul David Warner, who ferociously presents Alzheimer’s as the justifiably scary condition it is, the shape-shifter of diseases that can make somebody familiar and alien at the same time. Eschewing the sentimentality one might expect from an earnest TV movie on the subject, Warner understands that you can’t identify with Lenny — brilliantly hinting, also, in some of his more lucid moments that you wouldn’t have been too crazy about him when his mind wasn’t ravaged — so he gives in to the childishness of his rages, the banality of his docile moments, and the maddening vagueness of his more shocking secret-spilling utterances. Warner makes Lenny into a brutal, almost unforgiving metaphor, a glimpse into the potential future of the morally teetering policemen at the story’s center: How many will tragically wind up unable to make sense of their world?

CONVICTION | BBC America | Mondays, 10 p.m.; series marathon, March 19

If any show understood the essential humanness of those in uniform, it wasHill Street Blues, and it takes only a revisiting of its first episode — which is now possible with the release this week of the debut 17-episode season from 1981 as a DVD box set — to bring back with full, Belker-biting force the impact that series had on the trajectory of television cop shows. Written by co-creators Michael Kozoll and Steven Bochco and directed by Robert Butler, its 48 minutes of barely controlled mayhem and sharp detail — bickering ex-spouses, a squad-room brawl, hostages taken in a liquor store, a clandestine affair, and the sudden shooting of two beat cops — could easily smoke most of the pilots that make it to series today. The characters seem instantly memorable all over again: The soothing courtliness Michael Conrad gave Sergeant Esterhaus, Veronica Hamel’s regal and righteous Joyce Davenport fending off the advances of Kiel Martin’s Detective LaRue, Bruce Weitz’s Belker growling one minute and appeasing his mom on the phone the next, and Betty Thomas’ lone-gal officer Lucy Bates in a pile of male cops, subduing a suspect and blurting out, “Don’t think I don’t know who was coppin’ a feel during the fight, all right?” Then there’s Mike Post’s tuneful piano music that still sounds like the laying of a balm on a sensitive wound: Something tells me it’ll never tip over into nostalgic kitsch the way most TV themes do.

Bochco provides one of the commentary voices on that initial episode (along with actors James B. Sikking, who played SWAT leader Hunter, and Joe Spano, who played Lieutenant Goldblume), and while he’s guilty of maybe once too often boasting about how some aspect of the show had never been done before in episodic television, he’s mostly right. Overlapping dialogue, countless characters, envelope-pushing humor, adult relationships, smartly observed dialogue, a sun-up-to-sundown time frame per episode — Hill Street Blues forever made a particular brand of good guys/bad guys hour instantly ancient, willfully disrupting the purity of a cops-and-robbers consciousness that had been the calcified norm in prime time. (Could someone please do that now for our new Procedural Dark Ages?) Hill Street Blues forwarded a vision of real-world TV drama, in this case depicting officers of the court — cops, detectives, lawyers — as bedraggled system-workers: dogged, quirky, frustrated stewards of public trust who also fought for just an ounce of justice in their own lives, and for whom victories could be unexpected ?and bittersweet.

Of Daniel J. Travanti’s iconic character, weary zookeeper Captain Frank Furillo, Bochco at one point artfully describes him as “a middle-management character: an extraordinary amount of responsibility and very limited authority.” And, indeed,Hill Street Blues at its raucous, emotionally charged best most often felt like a series about a scrappy business, one whose messily designed but much-in-demand product was some semblance of order.

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