The Responder series two review: Does primetime TV need to be this exhausting and relentlessly gloomy?

Watching BBC One’s police drama The Responder, I am reminded of an image captured by freelance photographer Joel Goodman on New Year’s Eve in Manchester a few years back. That photo, which went viral in 2016, seemed to encapsulate the chaos of nightlife in the North East. In it, police officers handcuff a man on the kerb while a woman, dressed to the nines, looks on, and another older gentleman inexplicably lies in the street like Manet’s Olympia. It showed us the madness faced by police as the drink and drug-fuelled afterparty begins – the same madness that returns to our screens this week.

Martin Freeman is back as Chris Carson, a Liverpudlian police officer on perpetual night duty. Following the events of The Responder’s first series, Chris has graduated from therapy to group support sessions, but his life is still a nocturnal watch facilitated by cheap energy drinks. When he’s not cruising around Merseyside after dark, he’s struggling to keep the remains of his family life together. “She’s all I’ve got left,” he tells ex-wife Kate (MyAnna Buring) when she tells him that she and his daughter Tilly might be moving to London. To put the brakes on their move, Chris tells a lie – that he now has a “day job” and can be more involved in Tilly’s life – and this precipitates another dive into the Scouse underworld.

So much of British crime TV is predicated on the casting of charming men as surly detectives – whether that’s David Tennant in Broadchurch, Idris Elba in Luther, or Kenneth Branagh in Wallander – that it no longer feels surprising to see perennial nice-guy Freeman playing a copper riddled with demons. When, in 1968, Sergio Leone cast Henry Fonda, one of cinema’s most reliable heroes, as the villain in Once Upon a Time in the West, it blew audiences’ minds; now it is one of television’s most reliable tropes. All the same, Freeman is excellent as Chris, a man who makes five bad decisions for every good one. “I’m trying,” he tells his support group, half-hopeful, half-broken. “But when does it f***ing kick in?”

Chris’s foil in the show is younger cop Rachel (Adelayo Adedayo), who, following an unsuccessful secondment with another officer, finds herself back in Chris’s cruiser. “One minute I’ve got the s***tiest copper alive,” she despairs, “the next minute I’ve got the angriest.” And Chris is angry. He shouts and swears his way through a modicum of police work and a whole lot of moonlighting, both for crooked copper Deb Barnes (Amaka Okafor) and aspiring drug lord Jodie (Faye McKeever). If there’s a healthy relationship out there for him, Chris hasn’t found it yet.

Created by Tony Schumacher, himself a former police officer in the city, The Responder has always achieved an air of authenticity. But it is only an air: the substance of the show remains true to the heightened milieu of the British crime drama. Each character wrestles with the vicissitudes of life, whether that’s Rachel failing to extricate herself from an abusive relationship, hapless druggie Marco (Josh Finan) struggling to solo-parent his baby, or Chris dealing with his ailing, abusive father (Bernard Hill). It is a show about desperation in its many forms: every time Chris is asked to do something risky or self-destructive, he refuses, but the audience knows that, soon enough, desperation will reel him in.

The Responder is quite an exhausting watch. Its relentless gloom (“I’ve not seen the sun in years,” Chris tells a helpless amnesiac, and the audience will feel the same) is coupled with spiralling violence and poverty. Chris resorts to cadging fivers from his dad’s cookie jar just to buy his daughter a dress. Moments of almost farcical levity – often provided by cheeky peddler Casey (Emily Fairn, who is excellent) and her pal Marco – are succeeded by moments of shocking abuse and depravity. If the grimness of proceedings were in service of authenticity, the creative decision would be more easily justified. But The Responder is every bit as daft, as sensationalised, as your stock British blue-light drama.

Freeman is on the edge in ‘The Responder’ (BBC/Dancing Ledge/Rekha Garton)
Freeman is on the edge in ‘The Responder’ (BBC/Dancing Ledge/Rekha Garton)

If you can stomach the darkness without falling victim to sympathetic dejection, then The Responder has plenty of qualities. Freeman and Adedayo are a likeably human pairing, and the rendering of moonlit Liverpool is loving without being idealised. But does primetime TV need to be this exhausting? “How do you stay awake at night?” Chris asks a petrol-station shopkeeper. “Just, like, restock the crisps and that,” he replies with a shrug. But after an hour in the company of The Responder, it’ll take more than just shuffling the Quavers to stave off your full-body weariness.