Some television viewers are allergic to cliché. For them, reliance on old archetypes is symbolic of an inexcusable laziness on behalf of writers. But the first television drama, The Queen’s Messenger, was broadcast in 1928, meaning we have had almost a century of television at this point. And each year of that has involved more and more content being churned out. So, by now, if you’re not hitting a few clichés, you’re making something so odd it might as well have been produced by an alien visitor. All the same, ITV’s new police drama Ridley hits cliché after cliché with such precise aplomb that even the most resilient of viewers will find their eyes watering and skin itching. Achoo.
Adrian Dunbar – owner of Line of Duty’s saddest eyes and biggest “divorced dad” energy, amid stiff competition – is Alex Ridley, a retired detective residing somewhere scenic up north. Ridley has been forced to call it a day early, after his wife and teenage daughter were killed in a house fire. “How’s your retirement shaping up?” Jean Dixon, another ex-copper played by Elizabeth Berrington, asks him. “Takes a bit of getting used to, all this time on your hands,” Ridley replies. He needn’t worry for much longer: his protégé DI Carol Farman (The Fall’s Bronagh Waugh) brings him in as a consultant to help her investigate the murder of a farmer. With that, this father figure is back in the game for one last job. But can an old dog be taught new tricks?
Dead wife? Tick. Dead child? Tick. Seeing their faces on strangers before rousing himself and realising it’s not actually them? Tick. You can play along with cliché bingo at home. That one case he never solved? Tick. Inexplicable extracurricular hobby for a detective? Tick. Bafflingly Scandinavian interior design? Tick. Individually, none of these things are unpleasant. As with anything that becomes trite, the process of that overuse inevitably begins with a kernel of quality. Grieving detectives, for example, bring existential angst and an interrogative interiority to the mystery genre, creating a depth inaccessible to, say, Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.
But cliché must be deployed sparingly, and, unfortunately, the team behind Ridley – to not coin a phrase – use every trick in the book. The most unusual thing about the show is, in fact, its format: four feature-length and standalone mysteries. No cliffhangers, just a sad detective resolving murders before the credits roll. “You can’t solve them all, Ridley,” Dixon informs him naively. “It doesn’t pay to dwell in the past.” But fresh crimes and cold cases are all fair game for Dunbar’s detective. And Dunbar, along with Waugh, is good company for the duration of these long episodes. They have individual charisma and a collective chemistry. The first episode concludes with Ridley performing Richard Hawley’s “Coles Corner” to a packed jazz club. It’s a strange, compelling sequence that almost justifies the show’s use of a gratingly Columbo-esque score.
With self-contained episodes and capsule cases, the overriding story becomes ever more important. “It was me he was coming for,” laments Ridley, of the man who inadvertently killed his wife and daughter. “It was me who should’ve burned that night.” For all the depressing gravitas Dunbar brings to the role, it’s hard to be emotionally affected as we, the audience, are parachuted into Ridley’s life several stages into the bereavement process. In fact, it feels cheap – a cynical synthesis of things that’ve worked before. An eye from Wallander, an arm from Lewis, toenails from Marcella. For that reason, some viewers will enjoy Ridley. They’ll find it familiar and comforting, which, in trying times, is no bad thing. But a hug from Frankenstein’s monster still isn’t a good idea.