The notion that “less is more” is as clichéd as a Ché Guevara T-shirt or a photo of your mother pretending to prop up the Tower of Pisa. But its a cliché for a reason: there’s a kernel of truth in it. Netflix’s new police procedural, Criminal, embraces minimalism with the fervour of a recent Marie Kondo convert, and, boy, does it spark joy.
Criminal contains a dozen episodes grouped into sets of three and divided between four countries, each with their own recurring investigators. You can watch any region’s trilogy to start with, but presumably, Netflix starts those of us in English-speaking regions with the UK edition to get us hooked so we don’t mind the subtitles of the other nine episodes.
And what a strong start it is. Criminal: UK opens with David Tennant guest-starring as a doctor accused of raping and murdering his step-daughter. Despite being limited to the words “no comment” for half an episode, Tennant’s performance is staggeringly compelling, and helps introduce some of the key features of Criminal’s format.
First, the setting across regions – the others being Spain, Germany and France – is always the same: one floor of a downtown police department, and the interrogation facilities in particular. Most of the action takes place in the interview room, with the second-most-important location the space on the other side of the one-way glass, where the rest of the investigative team and various other bit-players watch the action unfold.
It’s not just a similar setting, it’s the same set for each trilogy, albeit with a different cityscape – and usually inclement weather – seen through the hallway windows that all smokers somehow know to open and stand near when indulging their vice (also, while you might be able to smoke indoors in France or Spain, it’s hard to believe you can get away with it in Germany or the UK).
It’s arguably not the best show for bingeing because its format is so rigid by design – but when it hits its mark, it’s remarkable.
The sound that indicates when an interview recording begins or ends is consistent, too, as is the red button that triggers it, and the soundtrack of each season is as brooding and tense as the detectives. While it’s the various police departments’ internal politics that provide the only narrative arcs between episodes, these almost always take a backseat to whoever plays the accused.
More unmissable crime series
What Criminal does brilliantly is use its constraints to ensure everything substantial unfurls via dialogue. In that way, it’s like a one-set play, or rather, a dozen one-set plays. Inevitably, some episodes and plots are better than others – and it’s arguably not the best show for bingeing because its format is so rigid by design – but when it hits its mark, it’s remarkable.
It succeeds because its characters, pacing, script and plot twists are so precise, calculated, and meticulous… which is often what the accused are lacking. Because crimes of passion seldom have the same care, and most crimes of the sort the series unravels tend toward the passionate rather than the premeditated.
Criminal’s various directors – each season gets its own – do a superb job of using the limited tools at their disposal, from the reflections on both sides of the glass to what sometimes feels like a textbook selection of shots. Pleasingly, every season has a standout episode, and none really overshadows its peers.
If you’re a fan of cop shows, start with the UK episodes at the very least. If you like them, we suspect the subtitles on the rest won’t bother you.