A lot of it comes down to the performance: all terrific. And I mean all terrific, with such a uniformity of terrifyingness that you know it must have been very well done. Stephen Merchant reveals a stunning range of acting nuances, like a conjurer removing a flock of doves’ coat, and Sheridan Smith will win awards as a bereaved mother, but everyone’s performance is truly spot-on, from Rufus Jones as a decent spectator to Michael Jibson as a useless policeman to Memet Ali Alabora as Smith’s adoring, struggling and heroic second husband.
The genius of the show, aided by this marvelous cast, is the extent of what it depicts, with regard to the human condition. Its power lies in its depiction of helplessness.
Four Lives diverts attention from its murders in a fairly familiar modern style – revealing the crux of the family tragedy, as crime shows tend to do these days – but then pulls back to reveal a tale of police incompetence at breathtaking, especially considering that the actual investigations only ended a month ago.
And then it goes back again, to portray with agonizing freshness and conviction what it really feels like to come up against the injustice of authority. It is the exquisite frustration, the enormous fear, the dreadful vertigo that has been felt by just about everyone in the world – not to this degree, but you will know the principle of this feeling, if you have been punished by a sadistic teacher for something you didn’t do, turned down a doctor’s appointment for yourself or an elderly relative when you know full well there’s something wrong, tells your toddler desperate that he can’t use the toilet by a mean little hitler in a fancy restaurant where you didn’t have lunch, or in fact, god forbid, arrested for a crime you didn’t commit . In the context of this past year, with the doors slamming on freedom, the unprecedented horror of being told you cannot enter hospitals where loved ones are dying, and the authoritarianism which rises at every turn, it has a bite that is almost unbearable.
This passage from the specific to the general, from the actual to the eternal, has a romantic significance. We understand the suffering of these families through the prism of our own experience, large and small, and throughout society. It really is a great program.