Cop shows are having their heyday. Even though any minimally complex investigation includes too much dead time as the challenge to produce realistic cinema from a couple of guys pouring over documents, scrutinizing security camera footage, picking up the mundane chit-chat on the wire. However, from time to time there arrives a show that tries to capture how tedious the job can actually be, without causing your audience to nod off. ‘Manhunt’ is the latest example from the British Isles, coming hot on the audience figures success in its country of origin: it was the most popular series on ITV since ‘Broadchurch’.
At the center of this three-part production is the case of the murder of the young Frenchwoman, Amélie Delagrange, in a park in a south-east London suburb. The police officer commissioned to investigate is an inspector well into his fifties, who is not exactly at his best juncture in life, but then he’s not a miserable barfly either, as the US cliché would dictate. He quickly realizes that he may just be about to embark on one of those career-defining cases. That said, the “career-defining” definition is a two-way street in that it may also have the capability to destroy his career if inquiries don’t lead to an arrest.
From this point onwards we’re privy to a ceremony of meticulousness and willingness to endure as the team begins combing the River Thames in the feeble hope of finding a cellphone disposed of by the assassin; travelling the country in search of a white van, license plate unknown but it does have a broken taillight; trying to keep his marriage and family life from falling apart as it’s something always in danger of disruption. Nothing that we haven’t seen a thousand times before now, but the British approach gives it several points of authenticity. The protagonist, a magnificent Martin Clunes, is no hero, but a simple cop with his fair share of human strengths and weaknesses, who like everyone else, tries to maintain some balance in life. However, we are shown a certain disenchantment with the system and, in this sense, the casting couldn’t have been more on target: he has one of those pursed lips and wincing-face set-ups going on as if he permanently had an open can of rotten tripe dangling under his nose.
Another distinctive element is the weight of public opinion and the pressure for immediate results. The case is from 2004, so it features Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World and clearly depicts how a newspaper with four million daily readers can shape the pace of a police investigation (in addition to making it clear that there were cops on the take receiving sumptuous backhanders to recklessly filter details that could compromise the investigation).
‘Manhunt’ doesn’t shine for its dialogues on the nature of evil, au contraire. In its dispassion lies the strength of the series. An everyday scene: the suspect who is under surveillance makes lude comments to underage kids in broad daylight on the street, thereby pointing out a terrifying truth: sexual predators are not eccentric weirdos living in log cabins or shacks lined with haunting wall art, deep down in the woods. They’re your neighbors, everyday folk, who kill in the extreme expression of their moral defect, but meanwhile they swarm neighborhoods leaving a trail of micro (and not so micro) attacks in their wake.
The series is an adaptation of the memoirs of the policeman who investigated this case (and the ramifications discovered), something evident given that ‘Manhunt’ has no whodunnit structure, with everything focused on reaching a climax where the murderer is uncloaked, preferably directly after some major gob-smacking-shock revelation. Long before any arrest, there is the conviction phase. Alas, intuition alone is not enough to bring a person before a judge in the hope of depriving them of their freedom. And this is the truest of all police dramas: knowing your suspect is the murderer, but not being able to prove it in time to close the window before he murders again.
At a time of true-crime’s heyday, a dramatization like this permits the emotions fictional techniques can deliver, without making you feel like you’re watching the Keystone Cops or Police Academy 3.