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Warning: light spoilers ahead for Criminal on Netflix.
Crime dramas and police procedurals are all but a dime a dozen nowadays, and while some have been successful enough to last for well over a decade, others just can't find a hook to stand out from the competition. Fortunately, Netflix's new crime drama Criminal is a fresh take on the police procedural with a stacked cast, and unlike anything you'll find in the NCIS or Law & Order franchises.
Criminal is a 12-episode series broken up into four distinct sections of three episodes each: U.K., France, Germany, and Spain. There are significant differences in the countries, casts, and cases between the four settings, but one key part of the format remains the same: the drama takes place within the confines of a police interview suite. That definitely doesn't happen in most procedurals!
Oddly enough, the show with an episode most similar to what Criminal accomplishes is debatably Brooklyn Nine-Nine with Sterling K. Brown as guest star, but the laughs are few and far between on Criminal. While before watching I couldn't help but wonder if such a series would be dull and uneventful without actually showing the crimes or the investigations, I was very wrong. Criminal is something new with some stellar actors. Here are some reasons why you should watch.
Note: the focus of this breakdown is primarily on the three episodes of the U.K. portion of Criminal.
A New Kind Of Crime Drama
Few shows would limit themselves to primarily taking place in one small room that can comfortably accommodate no more than four people. Every single episode of Criminal is something that other series might only have the nerve to try if they need a bottle episode to fill a slot in a season. Now, despite early descriptions of the series taking place entirely within the confines of a police interview suite, the scope is a little bit broader.
The observation room on the other side of the two-way mirror -- because no crime drama, no matter how unique, would be complete without the two-way mirror -- as well as the corridors and a coffee machine are featured, but the action stays on the same floor and does primarily take place in the interrogation room. Even if nothing else, Criminal would deserve credit for making a show with limited settings and powered by conversation interesting.
Would I want to watch Criminal as a 20+ episode per season ongoing series on a major broadcast or basic cable network? Probably not, and not just because airing on basic cable might mean F-bombs being handled poorly. But the format of Criminal is perfect for what it is, and switching between countries keeps things fresh. The only big downside of the country swapping is that it means losing cast members. Speaking of which...
A Killer Cast
Criminal absolutely would not have worked if the subjects of the interrogations weren't both compelling and able to toe the line of truth and lies so that viewers don't know until the very end if they're guilty or not. The rest of the cast had to be solid as well to keep the stakes feeling high and the interviews properly urgent. This couldn't just feel like people trading exposition for the better part of an hour before every tied up neatly.
The relationships that were built were subtle, and the show managed to flesh out some of the side characters with very little writing due to the strength of the performances. In the U.K. version, the suspects were played by David Tennant, Hayley Atwell of Agent Carter and the larger MCU fame, and Youssef Kerkour of Home and Nightflyers.
Hayley Atwell was all but unrecognizable due to her performance, not just the hair and accent that MCU fans won't recognize. As for Youssef Kerkour, his work in Criminal deserves to give him a bigger break into showbiz on a global scale. And then there's David Tennant.
A New Side Of David Tennant
Arguably the best decision the team at Criminal made for launching this atypical series was to use David Tennant as the anchor for the very first episode. Although Hayley Atwell is famous for her work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tennant is known all over the world thanks to his TV roles, primarily Doctor Who and Broadchurch, with a little bit of Good Omens thrown in for fans of the supernatural apocalyptic comedy from earlier in 2019.
Basically, with his most famous TV roles as a time-traveling alien literally driven by a desire to have fun and help people and a grouchy but skilled detective, and with his most recent high-profile TV job as a demon who's really more of a good guy than a minion of Satan, fans are inclined to trust David Tennant. After all, Barty Crouch was a long time and an iconic sci-fi role ago!
When his Criminal character starts to spin his version of events, you want to believe him, and it's an intense hour of back-and-forth before you find out whether or not he should have been trusted. David Tennant's best-known TV roles are good guys; his Criminal character could have been wrongly accused or a monstrous perpetrator. I didn't know where the episode was going until the very end, and that was fantastic. If you're on the fence about Criminal, I would recommend at least trying the first episode with Tennant in the spotlight.
No two of the Criminal episodes go in the same direction, and the cases are so much more than "Whodunnit?" mysteries. The U.K. stretch of episodes has the investigators and setting in common, but not much else. Very little is black and white, at least not until the very end of an episode, and even then there are shades of gray.
Have some of the stories been more or less done on NCIS or Law & Order: SVU or Criminal Minds in the past? Maybe. But then, between NCIS, SVU, and Criminal Minds, there are already 50 seasons of crimes! I think Criminal can be excused for crafting crimes with elements that may be slightly familiar for procedural fans. What matters is that the stories are done well, and that makes Criminal worth watching.
As a native English-speaker, I was predisposed to prefer the U.K. episodes of Criminal rather than the Spanish, French, and German, but Criminal really went to impressive lengths to make sure that even those of us who aren't fluent in all four languages can enjoy all four batches of episodes. The episodes are dubbed in English for those who want to watch that way, and while it's never possible for the lips to match exactly when it comes to dubbing, Criminal does a very good job of it.
I wasn't distracted by the dubbing in the least, and the cases in Spain, France, and Germany were compelling. There are also captions as an option. While I do prefer the U.K. episodes, I can enjoy all four batches, and that's not always the case when it comes to dubbed episodes of television.
You can find all 12 episodes of Criminal streaming on Netflix now. It's not a series that requires a binge to keep track of everything, so you can watch at your own reasonable pace or race your way through without losing anything either way. There's more coming to Netflix before the end of the year, and the fall TV schedule is packed with both streaming and broadcast options.