Returning officer


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.

Early Release

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.


13 thoughts on “Returning officer

  1. It wasn’t just the final episode (though as you point out, there were more ‘wtf?’ moments than one hour could possibly hope to plausibly contain). The point at which a whole tanks of sharks were jumped was in the previous episode, where the Black, female, DPP was left alone in an interview room with a psychotic racist murderer who was hearing voices, and then showed him her breasts in order to get information out of him. I’m pretty sure Kier Starmer never had to do that.

    From that point it was a ‘how stupid do they think we are?’ exercise…

    Liked by 1 person

    • That was precisely the point my goodwill toward the show evaporated. UNDERCOVER was three episodes of richly detailed family drama driven by a political thriller narrative, which was then followed by three episodes of increasingly ridiculous narrative chicanery that I genuinely cannot believe was by the writer of the marvelous legal drama SILK. Whilst awaiting your verdict on the whole sorry mess Kate Abbott’s Guardian episode recap has been hilariously entertaining.


  2. At the Guardian, I said that the Supreme Court scene had to be the biggest load of rubbish to ever appear on a television screen. No hyperbole. I mean, I have seen some incredibly bad drama in my time, but it was all Shakespeare compared to that Supreme Court scene. How spectacularly misjudged on the part of the writer. Andrew, the topic of the American “writers’ room” versus the UK “writer’s room” is one that you have shown a great deal of interest in. I am tempted to say that the American system exists (at least in part) to make sure that scenes like the one I am talking about never get anywhere near a finished “shooting script.” Fellow writers, in the production trenches, would diplomatically tell one of their own that he has lost his mind.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree about the rigour and the self-correction (and self-improvement) of the writers’ room in some cases. This being one of them. Even when I was writing my sitcom for Radio 4 I had a producer who, at one stage, sat me down in a meeting and told me that two of my storylines weren’t working and that I had to re-plot them. And this was a comedy. On the radio. Surely somebody on a big production at BBC One would be able to spot that this wasn’t working? (Unless, of course, people working at the BBC have all been distracted by the fear of what might be in the Government white paper. I hope they all relax now and start taking a bit more care with the output.)


    • W/r.t. different kinds of writers’ rooms, is it the presence of other writers that prevents such implausible plot turns into dead ends? I can think of plenty of US series that started well but then took off in terrible directions seemingly to either keep things going into further series, or because the show runner had a good idea for an initial premise but got it commissioned without having an idea how to follow it through for more than half the length of a series. Things like Flash Forward, Prison Break, even Lost, seem prime examples of the kind of loss of direction seen in Undercover. So wouldn’t it be more important who the other writers were, and what their relationship with the show runner was like (for example in terms of different levels of authority)?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Each show that fails has different reasons for doing so, and the writers’ room approach isn’t foolproof. The room still revolves around the showrunner, so their vision (or their ego) remains central. Also, demands from US networks are, as far as I can gather, much more stringent and commercially driven. UK TV’s “authors” are given more freedom, but sometimes, as with Happy Valley, this works to a show’s advantage and gives it a “voice” that can be lacking in some of the more industrially written shows in the US. (I wrote about this in my Billions review and I find the whole thing fascinating. Billions feels committee-written but I love every word of it, so far.)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Completely agree, it started so promisingly with one of the best opening episodes of recent series (I think you blogged about that in an earlier post). It was well acted, undramatic, and set up a plausible, un-stagy family. It would have been a really interesting series if all it had done was follow the revelation of the years of deceit. That was the most important, and interesting aspect of the set up. But in the end that became almost peripheral and fudged, to serve umpteen other, less interesting plot lines. And, as you might expect, it became impossible to draw all the strings together in the end (even if they had wanted to). I still don’t understand what we were supposed to take about the different cases that were being investigated, or the line involving the journalists. On the Guardian blog someone btl made a contrast with a number of other excellent dramas we’ve had this year, and mentioned Trapped as one of those. That seems a good comparison as its final couple of episodes showed that if personal scenes were plausible and well written and acted then there needn’t be any big plot lines to make things interesting and even genuinely moving. Given the subject matter set up at the start of Undercover it’s a real waste of potential.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agreed. Trapped is one of the best dramas of the year so far, right up there with Line Of Duty, Happy Valley and Billions (unless it goes off the boil before the end – we’re seven episodes into 12).


  4. It was batshit crazy – a ludicrous story interrupted by speeches.

    I felt like punching the screen as the DPP of England and Wales (or is it just England now?) lectured the US Supreme Court as if she were channelling the spirit of Gregory Peck or Spencer Tracy. Then it got worse with the reaction of the black female judge to the words of the dead man talking, I half expected everyone to link hands and sing Amazing Grace or I Will Survive at the very least.

    So much else was wrong it would take all day to minute them, I’ll just note that the angry opinion piece by someone who had been so duped writing in the Guardian about Undercover turned out to be bang on the money – just a pity they published her thoughts about 3 weeks weeks too soon thus robbing her of a more sympathetic reaction BTL


  5. My first thought after reaching the end was how much it reminded me of ‘London Spy’. Lots of great performances and so much to love about it… but a ludicrous, messy ending that couldn’t live up to the expectations created by the increasing convolutedness of the conspiracy.

    And the unbelievability of all the DPP stuff reminded me of similar aspects of some Stephen Poliakoff dramas (I think ‘Friends and Crocodiles’ is one example), in which the world of business appears to have been sketched in by someone who’s only read an article about it.


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