The very best crime drama of 2016
2016 has become a tumultuous year both socially, culturally, and especially politically. Many of the year’s best television crime dramas have been at the forefront of examining where we are now, and crucially how we got there.
While British crime drama has seen its usual share of historical series such as Peaky Blinders, Rillington Place and Ripper Street, there has been a turn towards harsh social realism, and a move to take the crime drama away from the mean streets of London into less familiar – in televisual terms at least – areas of the British Isles, as in Hinterland, Happy Valley, and even the somewhat non-specific urban location of Line of Duty.
The traditional procedural cop show still exists, but the serialised drama is now the premier storytelling format. Partly this is due to the rise of streaming services and the ability to binge watch a whole series over a weekend.
Here’s my personal pick of the best crime drama TV of the year.
The best crime drama of 2016:
The Missing series 2
Series 2 of The Missing not only matched the first for intrigue it surpassed it. Only French detective Jean Baptiste (the brilliant Tchéky Karyo) returned from the first series. Haunted by an old case, an ill and retired Baptiste is pulled into investigating the discovery of the abducted daughter of a UK forces family in Germany.
An incredibly dark series, The Missing made the grimmest of subject matter – child abduction – palatable, through strong characters and innovative use of multiple time frames to present a fog of confusion that slowly clears over eight compelling episodes.
Happy Valley series 2
Filmed and set in West Yorkshire, the title of Sally Wainwright’s series is bitterly ironic. Nestled in the hills is a community hiding multiple issues, suicide, drugs, divorce, human trafficking, and serial killing all feature. Happy Valley’s ace in the hole is its central character police Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancaster), one of the most interesting female characters in any drama of recent years.
The Night Of
Written by Hollywood heavy hitters Richard Price (crime author and a writer on The Wire) and Steven Zaillian (an Oscar winner for Schindler’s List) HBO’s The Night Of was rather improbably a remake of the British series Criminal Justice transposed to New York. The American version followed the case against Naz, a young Pakistani-American (played by British actor Riz Ahmed), who through a series of coincidences and poor choices finds himself chief suspect in a brutal murder. The series follows the case against him and his brutal experiences in the penal system, through to his trail.
This was American cable drama at its finest, bringing the production values of style of an awards-contender Hollywood film but with the expansive scope that only a multi-part television drama can provide.
A little bit of a left-field inclusion, The Expanse is a science fiction series set two hundred years in the future that takes place against rising tensions between three factions that now make up the human race.
What makes The Expanse noteworthy from a crime drama perspective is how noirish murder mystery is used as the spine of the series’ story. Joe Miller is a detective on a belt space station – a man whose purpose and moral compass has atrophied owing to years of enforcing the political will of others on the population of the belt. He is a classic hard boiled crime fiction stereotype, with a bizarre sci-fi haircut hidden under a classic 50s detective’s hat. Thomas Jane imbues the initially rather too standard detective figure with more character than may have been on the page.
The Night Manager
One of the most star studded series of the year was this BBC adaptation of John Le Carre’s spy novel, in which a British hotel manager and former soldier Jonathan Pine, played by the ever wonderful Tom Hiddleston, is drawn into spying for a British intelligence agency against a slimy arms dealer – played with just the right mix of public school charm and callous menace by Hugh Laurie.
Directed by Oscar-winning Danish film director Susanne Bier, The Night Manager was assumed by many to be Hiddleston’s unofficial James Bond audition. In reality with its yachts, fine clothes, and international locations it seemed much more like Bier was gunning for the job directing the next instalment of the super spy franchise, whenever that might appear.
The People v O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story
My personal jewel in 2016s TV crown was the gripping ten-part dramatisation of the arrest and trial of former American football star, actor, and celebrity Orenthal James “O. J.” Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
Adapting the Brown Simpson/Goldman murder case was fraught with difficulties. It could easily be seen as tasteless, exploitation trash. Would dredging this material up again be a good idea? The series plays the story as a farce, often feeling like Dog Day Afternoon crossed with Dynasty. Between Cuba Gooding Jr as O. J. and John Travolta as his chief lawyer Robert Shapiro it is a wonder there is any scenery left across the whole state of California.
These deliberately heightened performances were matched by brilliantly nuanced acting from Sarah Paulson and Courtney B. Vance as prosecutor Marcia Clark and defence attorney Johnnie Cochran.
Amongst a hugely impressive cast, it was Friends star David Schwimmer who found the real heart of the show playing O.J’s best friend and member of his defence team Robert Kardashian. Schwimmer played Kardashian (the father of Kim) as a principled and decent man, fiercely loyal to his friend, gradually realising he is badly out of his depth. In one scene Kardashian takes his children to a restaurant and finds he has suddenly become a national celebrity. As his children revel in being the focus of attention, he gravely tells them “we are Kardashians. And in this family, doing the right thing is more important than being famous.”
Of all the many series dealing with the tensions running beneath contemporary American society, none cut to the chase quite as keenly as The People v O. J. Simpson.
What was your favourite crime drama of 2016? Let us know in the comments below!