The BBC ‘go big’ with a new Sunday night drama by Peter Moffat. Hannah Dunleavy takes a look. CONTAINS SPOILERS.
If you’ve ever tried to write anything, you’ll no doubt have been given the advice ‘stick to what you know.’ There’s no better example of the efficacy of this method than the career of Peter Moffat – a former barrister and the creator of, among other things, Maxine Peake vehicle Silk as well as The Village, based on the working lives of Moffat’s father and grandfather.
He’s on solid ground here too, as the beautifully dimpled Sophie Okonedo’s Maya considers a move from defence barrister to being the first black Director of Public Prosecutions. Throw in the crisis surrounding increasingly inhumane lethal injections in the US and the sorry tale of undercover police operatives entering into inappropriate (and, arguably, immoral) relationships with female subjects and you’ve got all the ingredients for a proper fist-in-mouth drama.
Kicking off in both London and a sweaty Louisiana supermax, Undercover parcels out its information in incredibly small packages, leaving what I can only assume will be the crux of the series, the true nature of the relationship between Maya and Nick (Adrian Lester) and the potential exoneration of Michael, until the final few minutes.
By episode’s end, it’s clear that all sorts of shit is about to rain down on this family, something achieved with virtually no exposition while flashing between two continents and two time frames. Because, it transpires, Nick’s undercover in the toughest gig ever – a triathlete and dad of three teenagers.
“Adrian Lester’s got the toughest task here, asking us to empathise with a man who has lied to his wife for 20 years.”
It’s a laudable style of writing and one that only works if you’ve got the sort of cast that can carry it off; early suggestions are that they can. Lester’s a safe pair of hands and Okonedo’s beyond having to prove anything, but this week’s gold star surely belongs to Dennis Haysbert, whose Death Row inmate Rudy was quietly magnificent.
With almost no information about his crime (later revealed by the presenter of that Radio Trump-style station) and not even an acknowledgement that his last-ditch appeal for clemency had failed, that in-cell meeting was a masterclass in understated drama.
The casting of Phil Davis as Maya’s mentor and self-described “father figure” Jimmy is also a shrewd move, as his eclectic career has seen him oscillate between salt-of-the-earth everyman and evil personified, meaning it’s way too soon to know what to make of him yet.
And as for those collection of faces in The Fever Club (which sounds like something Lord Byron would be a member of but in reality was like the social club of a caravan park), well, let’s just say I’m afeared for Nick’s long-term situation.
In truth, Lester’s got the toughest task here, asking us to empathise with a man who has lied to his wife for 20 years, but early signs are positive. The stuff with his dad – who he has presumably been lying to too – in hospital was touching, as was his multitasking dog wee stop/weep.
An absolutely belting start. Bravo.
The big questions
Nick and Maya are just asking to be robbed/burgled, aren’t they? Car doors left wide open, wedding rings left in cars, a glass front door. He can’t even walk the dog without it being abducted.
Anyone else park in the middle of the road when taking a phone call?
That’s a teenage boy’s duvet surely?
Are ear studs for men making a comeback?
Catch up with Undercover on BBC iPlayer here and join Hannah again in a few weeks’ time for the series finale.1981 Views
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.