‘Criminal’ Is Netflix’s Lame Attempt at ‘Law & Order: SVU’

Nick Schager
Jose Haro / Netflix

A 12-episode series divided into four separate miniseries which take place, respectively, in England, France, Spain and Germany (each with their own cast of characters), Netflix’s Criminal is the opposite of the streaming platform’s true-crime sagas insofar as it promotes the idea that the truth is always attainable. A multilingual show whose installments are standalone interrogation-room dramas, it contends that every crime can be solved via careful questioning, attentiveness to body language, and a raft of evidence and clues—as well as 45 minutes’ worth of persistence.

For all its conceptual gimmickry, that makes Criminal (premiering Sept. 20) akin to a typical network procedural in which cases are closed by the time the credits roll. Ambiguity, much less failure, isn’t really part of its package. That, alas, proves a mounting problem the more one proceeds through its dozen chapters. Refusing to deviate from its formula except in minor ways, it’s a cat-and-mouse game that never lets the latter escape the clutches of the former—a situation that, in the final tally, results in monotony, and winds up squandering a host of great individual performances from David Tennant, Haley Atwell, Jérémie Renier and the incomparable Nina Hoss.

No matter which iteration of Criminal you’re watching, all the action is set in the same spaces: a police interview suite with a one-way mirror; the control room behind that viewing glass; and a hallway and lobby whose windows gaze out onto a hazy city. This one-locale-fits-all approach affords uniformity for its sagas; it also, however, drains them of their cultural distinctiveness. It’s difficult to feel like there’s anything radically different about the show’s international detectives when they all, strangely, share the same physical workspace. And that impression is only exacerbated by the fact that there’s nothing uniquely French, German, Spanish or British about the characters’ storylines or personal dilemmas. As envisioned by showrunners Jim Field Smith and George Kay (who also direct and write the U.K. episodes), Criminal provides superficial diversity for narratives that largely could have taken place anywhere.

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Admittedly, a couple of episodes—including one involving a Frenchwoman who may have committed fraud by pretending to be at the 2015 Bataclan nightclub attack—are tailored to their country of origin. Yet most aren’t, and neither are the protagonists, who primarily sit across a big table from suspects accused of infractions ranging from domestic abuse and migrant smuggling to murder. There are four to five police officers to each of the series’ casts, some reckless (Spain’s Emma Suárez, Germany’s Sylvester Groth), a few cautious (Britain’s Lee Ingleby, Spain’s Álvaro Cervantes), and others self-interested (France’s Laurent Lucas, Spain’s María Morales). The issue is, you could mix and match them and most of the actual tales wouldn’t change one iota; to Criminal’s detriment, there’s never a sense that specific nationalities might employ idiosyncratic tactics to persuade people to admit wrongdoing.

This is a shortcoming of the series rather than its performers, who do the best they can with characters that are fleshed out via peripheral tidbits. With so much time spent on the interrogations themselves, however, these paltry morsels underline just how little we know about them, save for one or two clichéd traits. The show is only on solid footing when it’s letting its investigators dive into the cases at hand, whether it’s a tough French construction company bigwig who stands accused of killing a worker, a playful Spanish woman who may have lured a lover to his death, or a reticent Turkish man whose German wife is in critical condition after a tumble down their home’s stairs.

In virtually all of its self-contained plots, Criminal derives intrigue and suspense from the tension between what individuals outwardly project, and what they conceal. That internal/external dynamic extends to the detectives as well, and speaks to the material’s underlying idea that everyone involved is engaged in some form of performance—for each other, and for the myriad cameras recording the interrogations (not to mention for us, the viewer). Unfortunately, that potentially rich thematic thread isn’t amplified in any way by the show’s visual scheme, courtesy of directors Oliver Hirschbiegel (Germany), Frederic Mermoud (France), Mariano Barroso (Spain), and Smith (U.K.). Save for a few of Smith’s contributions, the 12-episode affair is, aesthetically speaking, proficient but bland. Mindhunter this is not.

The same doesn’t hold, thankfully, for the standout turns from its biggest stars. As a father alleged to have offed his stepdaughter during a trip to one of her netball tournaments, and whose sole response to cross-examination is “No comment,” Tennant has a steely resolve that’s downright eerie. Atwell, on the other hand, is a rivetingly brash, nervous mess as a blue nail polish-decorated Londoner thought to have poisoned her sister’s boyfriend. And no one in Criminal is as great as Hoss (frequent leading lady for Christian Petzold), who’s unnerving as one half of a serial killer duo now attempting, after 20 years in prison for a string of homicides, to negotiate for intel on the daughter she’s never met. Her eyes alight with feral caginess, Hoss’ performance is a triumph of layered, manipulative emotions, and alone almost justifies the series’ existence.

Jose Haro / Netflix

Criminal only rarely rises to such heights, given how often its dragged down by its desire to have “good guys” invariably compel possible “bad guys” to confess to whatever it is they’re hiding—sometimes in ways that so contradict their own intentions and welfare, it feels as if narrative dictates are trumping basic logic. The various teams’ success at deducing, in the span of a single episode, what really happened, and who really did what, renders the scenarios themselves almost beside the point; one way or another, revelatory declarations are guaranteed. That’s not to say that each suspect is, in the end, guilty. But it does mean that Smith and Kay’s series can’t fathom an outcome in which direct questioning—be it of a sensitive, devious, or blunt nature—doesn’t ultimately extract the truth. It’s a comforting idea, but one that in light of so many other, more nuanced fiction and non-fiction crime dramas, makes it feel naïve.

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