It’s probably a little unfair to criticise a police procedural for being formulaic. The clue is in the title, after all: there’s a procedure to be followed. It’s a little like asking why oh why do they have all those white lines spoiling the football pitch.
Still, Annika, a new procedural on the crime channel Alibi based on the Radio 4 series Annika Stranded, ticked so many detective show cliches that at first I thought it might be a spoof. A car sped down a winding woodland road in the dark. A breathy vocal soundtrack welled up in the background. A ragbag investigative team was assembled. They did that thing where each member of the team says one line of useful exposition each before the boss says, “Good. Let’s get to work” and they all walk out.
The setting was at least something novel – DI Annika Strandhed (Nicola Walker) had returned to Glasgow to head up the Marine Homicide Unit, where she was tasked with solving the puzzling crimes and unexplained murders that wash up in Scotland’s waters. Instantly, the question arose of whether there can be enough puzzling crimes and unexplained murders washing up in Scotland’s waters to sustain a whole TV series, but then that never stopped tragedy unfurling repeatedly in Midsomer.
Once you’d lost interest in the clunking whodunnit – and it wasn’t that hard; as ever the nice people turned out to be the nasty people – the efforts Annika made to try and do something different with TV’s least pliable genre were none-the-less impressive. The character of Annika herself was a cut-out straight from Scandi noir – a single parent with a wayward daughter, new to the job, new to the area, flawed yet singularly perceptive, driving a particular type of battered car and so on – yet, my God, the scriptwriters tried to give the wonderful Nicola Walker something to work with.
They had her breaking the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience Fleabag or Miranda style, a hotline to her emotions and perceptions that gives a TV actor a chance to soliloquise as if they’re doing Shakespeare at the RSC. And, indeed, the best parts of Annika turned out to be these ones, when the rest of the shonky crime-drama scaffolding was blocked out altogether.
But ultimately this is a series made for the Alibi channel in conjunction with America’s Masterpiece Theatre. It is thus strait-jacketed from its inception: it must get from body found to crime solved in an hour, and it is also duty bound to wallow in tourist board aerial shots of the Scottish Highlands. Even shows about detectives who don’t play by the rules have rules.