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It is said that the thing actors fear most – beyond zombies, flesh-eating viruses, or the natural ageing process – is typecasting. It represents that claustrophobic sense that your agent, casting directors, and the public at large, have put you in a box. And there are few people as firmly in their box as James Nesbitt. From Babylon and Bloodlands to Stay Close and now Suspect (by way of a cameo in Line of Duty), Nesbitt has spent the last decade as television’s favourite sad copper. His characters are all men on the edge, overworked, downtrodden, exhausted – and it’s hard not to feel like the same could be said of Nesbitt himself.
In Suspect, Nesbitt is DS Danny Frater, a not-super-happy policeman who’s pushed to breaking point when he accidentally encounters the corpse of his estranged daughter while examining a Jane Doe at the local mortuary. Joely Richardson’s shifty pathologist recounts the technical details of how the girl died by suicide, but Danny isn’t convinced (“My daughter is dead,” Danny roars, “is that technical enough for you?”). He slips out of the grasp of his police colleagues and goes into full Liam Neeson mode, on the hunt for answers or, failing that, revenge.
Danny’s pursuit of the truth about his daughter’s death leads him, episode by episode, further down the rabbit hole of British character actors, ranging from Johnny English’s Ben Miller to Withnail and I’s Richard E Grant (by way of Anne-Marie Duff, Sacha Dhawan and Niamh Algar). The investigations take him from squalid bedsits to a Raymond Chandler-esque nightclub called The Crimson Orchid; from a lap dancer with a heart of gold to a villain who eats burrata like they’re biting an apple. “She’d never take her own life,” he’s told, naively, by a former colleague of his daughter, “she knew how to laugh at herself no matter how bad it got.” And so he ploughs forward on his quest, hitting every cliché possible, from every genre of detective fiction.
This all sounds quite ropey, and it is. Nesbitt is reliably Nesbitty – the camera frequently lingering on his face for several blank seconds where he could be acting, or could be thinking about whether he locked his car – but the writing and plotting are so trite that the series almost has the timbre of parody. The dialogue ranges from the hackneyed (“I don’t know what to say, mate,” consoles Sam Heughan’s Ryan; “Then don’t say anything,” barks Danny) to just plain weird (“Our very own Batman and Robin,” a shadowy underworld figure says of Danny and Ryan, “or do I mean Dick and Dom?”), via the deeply terrible (“I’m a venture capitalist… I’m interested in creating value not value judgements,” disclaims Grant’s Harry). It all has the feel of a not-terribly-competent first draft of a script written by someone who has acquired Nesbitt’s phone number and has 48 hours to cobble together a project for him.
One point, mercifully, in Suspect’s favour is its unusual brevity. Episodes are designed for the 30-minute slot on Channel 4 and feature predominantly single locations and single, non-Nesbitt, characters. This has clearly allowed them to elevate the standard of the cast: most of the actors only really star in one sequence, requiring no costume changes or expensive weeks in the studio. It leaves the project, however, feeling strangely airless and stagey, quite unlike the police procedurals we’re used to on British terrestrial television. But it’s hardly a good sign when the best thing you can say about a show is that it’s short.
There’s obviously something deep in Nesbitt’s thespian core that makes him want to play the same character over and over. “I’m gonna call the police!” Algar’s Nicola screams in his face at one point. “I am the police!” Danny replies, a line that could be lifted, word-for-word, from about half the projects Nesbitt’s been involved in of late. The truth is that doing the same thing again and again seems like genius if the piece works. Nobody complained that John Wayne was playing another cowboy or that Hugh Grant was returning to his role as a sexy but bumbling upper-middle class haircut. But Suspect isn’t good. It isn’t a compelling new addition to the British TV detective canon. In fact, the only thing convincingly mysterious about it, is its existence.