Huh? What just happened? A promising, seemingly self-contained, issue-driven crime drama by an assured and reliable writer reached its finale and, after seven weeks that should have been six, a nation started shouting at the telly. Undercover (BBC One) began so well and ended so badly. (That it was egregiously scheduled over five consecutive Sundays, with a week off to make way for the Baftas last Sunday, and then this finale two weeks later was a mistake to rival the random first two weeks of Dickensian. Talk about kicking your loyal audience in the teeth. Over on ITV, Marcella is being given the “event” treatment, with its last two episodes of eight being scheduled across two consecutive nights. Sometimes the BBC is its own worst enemy.)
The plausibility of Undercover was already strained when the BBC rested it for a fortnight after episode five, but still we waited, patiently. We wanted to find out how it would end after Adrian Lester’s undercover officer was finally unmasked by his incidentally epileptic Director of Public Prosecutions wife after 20 years of deceit. Actually, I’ve no idea what might constitute a plausible reaction to discovering that the man you fell in love with, married and raised three children with was lying to you the whole time and investigating from the outset (although this issue is a live one and has happened). But aside from giving Sophie Okonedo ample opportunity to cry and rage and shout and lash out, it didn’t feel right. She didn’t even kick him out of bed. And in this damningly suspect final episode, the entire family of four literally dashed to his aid in the woods to prevent a showdown that explained nothing.
That Undercover offered no equivalent of the Big Reveal in the drawing room need not be a crime in these more sophisticated TV times; that it muffed any kind of comprehensible conclusion, save for a montage of bad guys having their collars felt, someone innocent getting caught in the crossfire, and a headline-only revelation linking Dennis Haysbert’s Christ-like death-row survivor’s parallel story to the one at home, was heinous. It felt to me like the ending had been tampered with in the name of “leaving things open” for a second series, with entire jigsaw pieces missing to keep us in the game. A crushing irony, this, because anecdotally it seems that these loose ends, implausibilities and ambiguities left a loyal audience vowing not to watch a second series. This wasn’t as headline-grabbingly mercenary as the end of the first series of The Fall – in which a delicious cat-and-mouse between a cop and a killer was cynically left hanging so that it could become a serial – but it was similarly ambiguous and greedy. Okonedo and Haysbert spoke in tongues about “going big” throughout, and in this final episode, she promised to “go bigger,” which is exactly what we didn’t want. Going somewhere is what we wanted.
I won’t ask the question: why do they do it? We know why. They do it because even the BBC is under pressure to produce saleable goods; returning series, brands, properties. (In this respect, all broadcasters are commercial.) The days of single, self-justifying dramatic plays are long gone. We must be enticed to tune in again. But with the recent crowd-pleasing likes of Line Of Duty, Unforgotten, Happy Valley and – although I found it hokey – The Night Manager delivering big returning audiences and paying back our week-on-week loyalty with skill, rigour and invention, it’s unacceptable to muff a finale. And you certainly can’t have Adrian Lester being asked by his wife, in front of his injured family, to tell them his real name, and the screen going black just before he opens his mouth. What? So it’s tune in next year to find out what his real name is? We don’t care that much. His name is the least of those on our list of questions. What did the mayor of Baton Rouge have to do with it? Why was the DPP allowed to spend half her time in America? Why was the grizzled old hack in the woods? Why the glamorous Louisiana subplot in the first place? To tick some boxes for BBC America? (God, I hope not.)
I return to Chris Chibnall’s sound advice, “Give every character a secret.” Well, Moffat’s entire series rested on Adrian Lester’s secret – a secret going back 20 years – but once it was out of the bag, and the immediate fallout had been swiftly cauterised, Undercover seemed to flail about looking for other ways to keep us interested: the woolly newspaper-journalist subplot; the Haysbert death row case’s preposterous court hearing in which Okonedo became Atticus Finch and an apparent zombie gave evidence; the blameless autistic son being honey-trapped; Vincent Regan’s out-of-nowhere paedophile excuse. Some good acting was put in along the way – Okonedo’s seizures were excellent, and both Alastair Petrie and Derek Riddell shone as the baddies – but it was all thrown away by that final episode. As anyone in law will tell you, you have to get the jury onside, and keep them onside until they make their judgement. We have made ours: guilty.
PS: If you’re looking to join a support group for disappointed Undercover viewers, try below-the-line at Kate Abbott’s witty episode guide on the Guardian website. There is a definite consensus there.