Suspect Review: an unusually ambitious crime drama

James Nesbitt interrogates a new suspect in every episode of Channel 4’s new crime drama

One question looms over new Channel 4 crime drama Suspect: Did Christina Frater commit suicide or was she murdered? It’s ambiguous, more than such dramas often allow. The idea that she was murdered often seems less a foregone conclusion and more a desperate fiction to which the investigating officer clung – her father, Detective Sergeant Danny Frater (James Nesbitt), who failed to realize his daughter was dead was until he turned around one morning at the morgue and found her lying on a slab. He can’t accept the possibility that Christina killed herself, and his investigation – obsessive, extreme, unethical – is as riddled with denial as anything else.

Danny and Christina were estranged – obviously; It took him days to realize that she had died – and he learns more about her from his research than he ever really knew in life. He interrogates co-workers he didn’t know she had, friends he’d never met, a partner he’d never heard of, and he finds out milestones he’s missed without even knowing realize they happened. Danny was so absent from Christina’s life that he only finds out about her now that she’s dead – and every time he insists that Christina would never have committed suicide, that it must have been murder, he has a nagging feeling that he she may never have known at all.

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This positions the suspect slightly away from the audience. He is unpredictable, jumps to conclusions and makes unfounded accusations. His investigation soon gets outside the law, and he takes personal and professional liberties in search of a truth that won’t and can’t bring him closer to his daughter. “You keep missing the big picture,” stresses his ex-wife, Susannah. “Christina’s gone.” There’s something rather sad about Danny—aggressive, chauvinistic, and emotionally atrophied—and James Nesbitt brings a convincing hurt quality to this essentially short-sighted and narrow-minded character.

At heart, of course, it’s still just another pretty grumpy drama about an anxious, brooding man who’s pushed to his limits when a woman gets killed in his life (complete with fuzzy hallucinations of Christina motivating Danny, unavoidable cliche, too if done well). . It might even turn out that she really was murdered. Early on, an obvious candidate is identified who doesn’t quite follow the Law & Order rule of “the most famous actor is always the killer” but is a close cousin of it, with most viewers likely to see it that early. At least Suspect tempers that fear with a welcome ambivalence, never fully believing in the cycles of anger and retaliation that underpin the genre.

James Nesbitt as Danny and Richard E Grant as Harry stood on the grounds of a horse racing arena (Credit: Laurence Cendrowicz/Channel 4)

What is unusual about Suspect is that each episode – each running for almost half an hour – is dedicated exclusively to a single interrogation. Danny is the only character to appear in every episode (although not the only character to appear in more than one), and each episode plays out as a very tightly focused two-handed game between Nesbitt and a new guest cast member. It’s a welcome experiment, one that lends ambition to the genre – British television is dominated by crime drama and any willingness to play with that form is a relief – and goes a long way towards making Suspect feel distinctive.

The obvious highlight is the fourth episode, in which Nesbitt takes on a local gangster played by Sacha Dhawan (Doctor Who). As is often the case, Dhawan is electrifying, bringing a real sense of vulnerability beneath a cracked facade to a relatively simple character type. Each episode has a pleasingly theatrical quality – understated and stripped down, with the actors’ performances taking center stage – and uses television as an episodic medium. Admittedly, at times it feels like Suspect could use a little more pep (it’s probably not designed to be watched in one go), but the format clearly has potential. It’s obvious that Suspect has appeal as a recurring anthology series with a new detective and roster of guest stars each year.

It can be a little wide at times; Despite the show’s certain skepticism about Danny’s investigations, she wants to make sure you get the point by not so lightly outlining her subjects as underlining them with a big red marker. Likewise, it’s hard to overthink simplistic and to-the-point dialogue when stretched out by Richard E Grant, and there’s enough flair in the direction of Dries Vos that those moments don’t stand out too much either. (A nice little detail: a vision of Christina filmed at an angle where a tear rolls parallel to the camera and not down her face.)

Ultimately, Suspect’s great structural vanity offsets many of its shortcomings: it’s far more interesting than its unusual format might otherwise have made it, and that experimental dimension mitigates some of its more general aspects. Suspect Review: an unusually ambitious crime drama


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