The answering machine review | The gripping BBC drama is anti-Line of Duty

A rating of 5 out of 5 stars.

Let’s get one thing straight: there are way too many crime dramas on TV. I struggle to muster more than a weary look when another hits our screens, as the genre often epitomizes how uninspired and risk-averse many commissioners seem these days. Suffice to say, my expectations were low for The Responder, which introduces us to another morally compromised cop with a troubled home life. But while the concept may sound familiar, the material is approached from an angle that feels fresh, raw, and utterly compelling.

Martin Freeman stars as Chris Carson, whose sanity has been shattered over many thankless years on the force, which in turn is deteriorating his marriage. What begins as a fascinating character study explodes into a thrilling crime saga when desperate young drug addict Casey (Emily Fairn) steals a huge stash of cocaine, intending to resell it and use the funds to start over. Torn between two worlds, Chris finds himself constantly questioning what’s right, a question made even more complicated when he finds himself paired with idealistic rookie Rachel (Adelayo Adedayo).

Writer Tony Schumacher once worked as an intervention policeman himself and that life experience is evident here, resulting in complex scripts that offer an unflinching look at the limits of the system. Where Line of Duty has always championed the importance of keeping agents to the letter of the law, The Responder responds with thought-provoking counterpoint, presenting situations that reveal when procedure isn’t fit for purpose. Time and time again, Schumacher finds troubling gray areas to send his story, where every decision has devastating consequences dragging Chris into even deeper waters.

These high stakes wouldn’t have an impact without the very well-realized characters featured in The Responder and the rich relationships established between them. It would have been too easy to lean on tired stereotypes in a story like this, but Schumacher’s designs are carefully layered and full of surprises. They also feel completely authentic, with the screenwriter displaying a wealth of knowledge acquired over decades of living and working in the Liverpool area. As someone with no local connections, I expect his work to have even more intricacies that will be apparent to those more familiar with the area.

Martin Freeman plays Chris in The Responder

By extension, I don’t feel entirely qualified to judge the accuracy of Scouse’s accents on display here, with Hampshire-born Freeman and his on-screen wife, MyAnna Buring, among the cast members. playing Liverpudlian – but to my untrained ear, they’re both doing a brilliant job. After a brief adjustment period in the first episode, it’s never distracting to see the Sherlock star in such an off-the-wall role, as his public persona quickly disappears into the depths of Chris’ damaged psyche. The chemistry between him and Buring is excellent, skillfully portraying the angst of a failing marriage.

It’s a phenomenal cast on every level, taking Schumacher’s superb scripts and taking them to even greater heights. Timewasters star Adedayo takes a bold turn into dramatic territory here, tackling a tough storyline that culminates in a knockout scene that will leave viewers speechless. Emily Fairn and Josh Finan are mesmerizing in their first big screen gigs, bringing troubled youngsters Casey and Marco to life, while Ian Hart (The Last Kingdom), Faye McKeever (Trollied) and Christine Tremarco (Little Boy Blue) excellent in juicy roles that are antagonistic villains but not clearly defined.

Adelayo Adedayo in The Responder

Adelayo Adedayo plays Rachel in The Responder

Praise must also go to The Responder’s stellar guest cast, which includes screen legends David Bradley and Rita Tushingham, alongside a host of lesser-known but equally impressive talent. This strong line-up really shines on Chris’ more mundane calls, where he’s faced with resolving some truly tragicomic conflicts. It’s important to note that while there are amusing moments sprinkled throughout these scenes, the humor never hits the vulnerable characters depicted. On the contrary, there is great sympathy for those who feel that society has left them behind, which is a central theme throughout the series.

The Responder is a sophisticated look at modern policing, introducing a captivating character to examine how the system just doesn’t work for everyone. It could very well be a career-changing role for Freeman, who takes on the challenge of darker material, while also having the potential to propel several new faces to stardom. The cast deserves all the recognition it will inevitably get, as does Schumacher, who immediately emerges as a creative voice to watch. Indeed, that he can make this cynical genre fall in love with a crime drama suggests he might even be a miracle worker.

The answering machine airs on BBC One at 9pm on Monday 24 January 2022. Check out more of our drama coverage or visit our TV guide to see what’s on tonight.