Sunday, 15 January 2017

THE LEVEL Episode One review

One of the joys of TV these days is getting to watch genres which have died out on the big screen. Though it trades in some of the post-Fincher stylings we've come to expect from TV thrillers, ITV's new series The Level is a dyed-in-the-wool film noir.

With its increasingly harried protagonist and its existential premise, The Level harkens back to the likes of DOA and The Big Clock, in which characters struggle against broader machinations they can barely comprehend.

Our heroine is Detective Sergeant Nancy Devlin (Karla Crome, Under the Dome, Misfits), a policewoman living a double life -- she is shielding a family friend with dubious business connections (such as drug trafficking). When he is murdered, she is put on the team investigating his death. The police found blood on a bullet that does not match the victim. Since no gunshot wounds have been reported at local hospitals, Nancy and her colleagues are tasked with locating this missing witness.

What they don't realise is that the witness they are looking for is Nancy. She is literally hunting for herself.

Using mail order drugs to (barely) keep on top of her wounded thigh, Nancy has to solve the case before her colleagues figure out hat's going on. That does not even take into account the fact that the killer is still out there, on their own mission to hunt down the witness before she squeals ...

A neat, tidy little intro to our key ensemble, this first episode is a solid start. There are some hoary patches of exposition, but other than that, the story-telling is solid. Within five minutes we have got a solid lock on Nancy's character and dual lives. We start with a scene at the National Police Unit, where she receives a medal for saving a fellow officer's life. Shortly after that, she is in a darkened wood talking to a businessman whose criminal dealings she has kept off police radar. No time wasted: He is shot, she is wounded and events quickly start spiralling out of control.

Having a premise as unique as The Level's gives it a leg up over a traditional mystery. With our heroine compromised, it adds another layer of tension -- the viewer is empathising with Nancy's attempts to cover her tracks, while also wondering how long it will take her colleagues to find out what's going. Nancy's bullet wound is a nice ticking clock that becomes more of an issue as the investigation progresses. As her evasions and off-book investigation begins to collide with the official one, the show goes from being merely diverting to actually interesting.

Karla Crome is really good in the lead. They don't try to make her a masculinised tough guy, and, without a lot of exposition, Crome manages humanise Nancy and make her relatable. Her sweaty, shifty performance is a delight -- the bent-but-noble cop is a template that has been utilised by many male actors (Denzel Washington, Michael Douglas etc), and it is refreshing to give such a potentially meaty role to a woman. Nancy is the most noirish component of the piece, a fall guy who thinks she has a handle on what is going on, but is quickly finding herself trapped in a series of circumstances she cannot control.

Overall, this is a solid pilot energised by an interesting cast of characters (Noel Clarke plays the suspicious local cop she partners with, and the always-great Gary Lewis turns up as Nancy's slovenly father) and the in-built tension of its great premise.

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