Scene from Baptiste, BBC Scene from Baptiste, BBC

At its best, crime drama does not simply try to terrify us with pure unblinking evil but gives us studies of dysfunctional human beings mangled by capitalism, argues Sofie Mason

In an attempt to distract myself from the never-ending freak-show of Brexit, I have been bingeing on Shetland (ITV) and Baptiste (BBC1) in an attempt to formulate a Marxist analysis of crime drama. This has been a mistake. Brilliant as the filming, acting and general craft of these programmes are (although one actor is still struggling hilariously with the Shetland accent 5 series in), nothing could be more awful in curdling your view of the human race than these stories of bad people doing bad things with unblinking stares because they are just bad and that’s human nature. And always will be. Cheat (ITV) also had an unblinking wrong’un but that story of a student cheating, stalking, sexting and murdering was so silly, it’s not worth bothering with.

So, in order to cheer myself up, I flicked over to the blandly undemanding Murder in Paradise where thankfully there is a lot of reassuring blinking by flawed human beings caught up in emotions as simple and recognisable as greed and revenge, whose murders are more opportunistic than pathological (mostly killing by mistake) and who hand themselves over in stunned silence as if overwhelmed by the honour of being caught by such a superior intelligence as that of the devilishly clever Ardlan O’Hanlan (who would have guessed it after his blissfully pea-brained Dougal in Father Ted!). The actors are all top-notch, so delighted with a freebie in the Caribbean they hardly bother to act, while the world-weary Commissioner Don Warrington out-thesps them all with a multitude of withering looks. Unbelievably, irrespective of all the death and heart-break, every case ends in a shameless celebration by the beach quaffing cocktails.

You may say this is the opium of the people and an insult to the intelligence. But, having recently diversified into training as a part-time plumber hulking great toilet cisterns around and sweating furiously under sinks, sometimes you need a dash of opium on a Caribbean island at the end of a hard working day. We are not stupid, you see, we’re just tired.

It’s a shame there are no class politics in the series and it may be that the BBC keeps re-commissioning it just because it’s an easy way to meet its commitment to diverse casting, but the ideology being promoted behind every episode is simply the value of hard work. Never give up, stay at it, you’ll crack it in the end. Which, of course, may dupe us into working harder next day in the forlorn hope of retiring early to quaff cocktails on the beach but at least we’re not watching Midsummer Murders which is just smug middle-class nonsense.

In fact, I’m not recommending you watch either. At its best, crime drama does not simply try to terrify us with pure unblinking evil but takes us into the heart of the beast and gives us studies of dysfunctional human beings mangled by capitalism – not stupid, not evil, not pathologically ill but capable of so much better. And that is, perhaps, the greatest insight that crime drama can give us – how much capitalism can reduce, constrain, distort and waste human potential.

Both Baptiste and Shetland brush up against a critique of capitalism and then bungle it. Both story lines centre around people-trafficking. Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo) limps around Amsterdam looking rugged and haunted in pursuit of Romanians trafficking prostitutes, accompanied by the excellent gravel-voiced Tom Hollander who (still looking like Rev on a really bad holiday) is us – a traumatised everyman trying to make sense of the world, trying to do the right thing, trying to make a difference, even fending off contract killers with a fruit knife!

Both he and Baptiste have loved and lost daughters to drugs. Both seem to be trying to save their families from men who do very bad things in an underworld that is increasingly indivisible from the upper-world of capitalism. The worst Romanian, who hasn’t blinked for many episodes despite sawing off heads and braining people with billiard balls, has just started blinking as he is revealed to be a cog in the machine simply doing a job until thrown off a balcony by an ungrateful boss. I actually felt sorry for him at that moment – possibly because I am a union official in my day job and that was a completely undeserved dismissal without notice.

Concurrently, series 5 of Shetland involves gorgeously dishevelled widower, DI Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall) pursuing people traffickers who are trying to hide young women on an island with a population of 23,000, no trees and not many buildings. In the end it is the Nigerians rather than the Eastern Europeans who chose this particular challenge. It may be that people trafficking is an easy topic for crime dramas because you can blame shady foreigners who don’t have our (alleged) European respect for human rights and fellow men but neither drama shirks the fact that these shady foreigners successfully bribe otherwise hard-working people everywhere into their clutches because we can all become vulnerable and desperate if we are poor, in debt or ill. The creation of poverty on a global scale creates the opportunity to force human beings to become slaves and to force others to traffic the slaves. The continued attacks across the world on trade unions, human rights agencies and social safety nets casts this layer of impoverished labour even further adrift and open to exploitation. It is clear in both dramas that the resurgence of slavery is not a criminal aberration, a throwback to the bad old days. Modern-day slavery is a natural extension of modern day business. Capitalism does indeed lead to barbarism.

Towards the end of Shetland a bleary-eyed Scotsman, pickled in whisky and slipping into bankruptcy, wakes up hungover on the beach to see bodies floating by and wades in to cradle the corpses of drowned Nigerians as the camera swoops upwards to capture an aerial view of the horror. “It shouldn’t be like this,” he whispers to Jimmy and all Jimmy can say is “Aye, it shouldn’t.” At the end of Baptiste, Tom Hollander turns to Baptiste and says “I don’t want all this to be for nothing,” and Baptiste replies that we need to keep on but whatever we do, human nature will continue to behave badly and the world will just keep turning. Both are appallingly unscientific conclusions to clever dramas that have laid out the machinations of capitalism, diagnosed the causes of modern-day slavery and then shrugged and walked away.   

Bizarrely, in both series, leading characters are advised to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ masterpiece of magical realism, 100 Years of Solitude. This may be just lazy or a deliberate reference to the book’s description of the inevitable and inescapable repetition of history. Don’t be fooled, these crime dramas are worth watching because they are far cleverer than that and tell us so much more than that but sadly stop short and end up reinforcing that old favourite of all ruling class ideas that “human nature cannot change and capitalism is all we have.”

Sofie Mason

Sofie Mason is a political activist, arts campaigner, trade union official and occasionally works for all-female plumbing company Stopcocks.

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