Why Line of Duty has become such a cultural phenomenon

Ali Pantony
·5-min read
Photo credit: Steffan Hill
Photo credit: Steffan Hill

The finale of Line of Duty series six airs at 9pm on Sunday, and this season of the police corruption drama has been so popular that Monday 3 May essentially marks an unofficial day of national mourning.

In fact, the BBC series is officially the UK’s highest-rated TV drama in 13 years, beating the likes of Doctor Who and Downton Abbey. The penultimate episode which aired on 25 April was the show's most-watched ever, with an impressive 11 million viewers.

So, what is it about the series – which focuses on AC-12, a fictional anti-corruption unit of the British police – that has captivated so many of us? If there’s one thing we’re not short of, it’s crime shows, so what makes Line of Duty so special?

Let’s start with the premise. Over the past decade, police dramas have followed a specific humdrum formula: devoted and diligent officers catching the bad guys (despite battles with alcohol dependency, troubled pasts, familial breakdowns or all of the above). Line of Duty was one of the first crime dramas to delve into the dark side of British policing; to present the most despicable villains (Dot Cottan makes Cruella de Vil look like a PETA volunteer) as boys in blue. Audiences were never not going to love a show about ‘catching bent coppers’ – it’s captivating because it’s controversial, especially in a period where distrust in law enforcement is high.

Corrupt coppers aside, Line of Duty ensured that we fell in love with its main characters – DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), DI Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) and Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) – since the very first season way back in 2012. Line of Duty’s exhilarating plot twists, grisly crime scenes and suspenseful interrogations are interspersed with the characters’ believable, lovable traits. Op-eds have been written about Steve’s waistcoats, Kate’s sleek bobs have inspired salon trips, and Ted’s hilarious one-liners – aka ‘Tedisms’ – have been made into countless memes.

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

It’s not just the stalwart trio that make such enticing viewing, but the conveyor belt of superb British acting talent that Line of Duty has attracted over the last six seasons – and who usually meet their untimely end after just one series, from Lennie James as Anthony Gates in season 1 and Keeley Hawes as Lindsay Denton in seasons 2-3 to Daniel Mays as Danny Waldron in season 3 and Thandiwe Newton as Roz Huntley in season 4.

The way in which Line of Duty savagely culls brilliant characters – played by brilliant actors – in the time it takes to read the Miranda rights keeps us intrigued and means we’re never sure what’s coming, particularly when they’re killed off in such brutal ways. Shot in the face, thrown out a window, power saw to the neck – take your pick. Gruesome, yes, but a viewership tactic that works. Just ask the guys at Game of Thrones.

Photo credit: Steffan Hill
Photo credit: Steffan Hill

Line of Duty must also be praised for its portrayal of women. So often in crime dramas, female leads are reduced to either sex appeal and/or emotional predisposition – no matter their position of power, they are either a liability or a damsel in distress waiting to be rescued. While personal backstories and sexual tension are used where relevant in Line of Duty, they are by no means central to its female characters. As Keeley Hawes once told The Observer: "I don't think anyone has ever looked that bad on the television screen [as Hawes playing Denton]. It's liberating." The beauty of Line of Duty’s women is that their scripts could be that of their male counterparts.

Then there’s the joy of anticipation. In the world of same-day delivery, swipe-for-dates and on-demand streaming, waiting an entire week for the next episode seems practically archaic. This is – whisper it – traditional linear TV. But therein lies part of Line of Duty’s appeal; it’s an antidote to the instant gratification generation. Had all seven episodes dropped on iPlayer at once, we would have hungrily devoured them all before moving onto the next binge-watch that very weekend. Instead, we’ve sat in eager anticipation and enjoyed our scheduled action-packed hour together. This also ensures that each episode demands complete attention simply because we’ve had to wait for it. Have you found yourself browsing Net-a-Porter, scrolling Instagram or checking your work emails between 9 and 10pm on Sunday nights for the past seven weeks? No, me neither. Line of Duty has provided a rare hour of absolute absorption, which in lockdown, has been invaluable.

Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/Steffan Hill
Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/Steffan Hill

Over the last few days, speculation that this will be Line of Duty’s final season has been rife. The teaser trailer for Sunday’s episode hints – quite conclusively – that ‘every investigation has led to this’ (presumably the identity of bent copper ‘H’), and speaking on the Shrine of Duty podcast on Wednesday, Martin Compston said: "I think there comes a point where the natural story arc that's been running all these years is coming to an end."

We’d like to thank Line of Duty for keeping us thoroughly entertained during its decade-long service, should this be the end of the road. But Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the wee donkey, we really hope it’s not.

In need of some at-home inspiration? Sign up to our free weekly newsletter for skincare and self-care, the latest cultural hits to read and download, and the little luxuries that make staying in so much more satisfying.

SIGN UP

Plus, sign up here to get Harper’s Bazaar magazine delivered straight to your door.

SIGN UP

You Might Also Like