The Responder Series 2 Review: the Opposite of Cosy Crime

This Martin Freeman-starring police series is tense and bleak but buzzing with life

Martin Freeman in police uniform in The Responder series 2
Photo: Dancing Ledge

‘If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry’ isn’t just the correct British response to any exasperating situation, it must also be Tony Schumacher’s screenwriting mantra. His crime drama The Responder would be unwatchably bleak if it wasn’t also so bloody funny.

Series one put response officer Chris Carson (Martin Freeman) through the wringer so thoroughly that it was a wonder he survived. His childhood pal Carl, a small-time drug dealer who’d been paying him for police intel, didn’t, and in a characteristically heroic/risky attempt to help Carl’s widow, Chris gave her the rucksack of stolen cocaine that had kicked off all this mess. Now it’s six months later and guess what? Chris’ problems are far from over. 

Series two of The Responder is just as buzzing with life and wry observation as the first. Chris’ night-time police patrols offer up a parade of lost souls and sad sacks in need of more help than a lift home and a microwave dinner, but the job being what it is, that’s usually all he can offer. He’s threatened with dog shit, takes a dementia-sufferer for a ride, and meets Liverpool’s take on Grey Gardens (a tiny but delightful cameo by Cheshire royalty Sue Johnston). And those are the easy ones.  

The hard ones are the local gangsters threatening Chris’ life if he doesn’t follow their orders. From low-level operators to the big cheeses of the criminal world, Chris has to complete their missions like a character in a video game hoping to clear the next level, and the next, just to stay alive. Add that to the severe psychological toll caused by his family troubles and you’ll soon be signing the online petition to get the man some paid leave instead of a third series.

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It isn’t just Chris’ life in danger either; remember Casey and Marco, the ‘baghead’ and the ‘scally’ who leapt off the screen in series one thanks to Emily Fairn and Josh Finan’s elemental performances? They’re back and in no less trouble than before. Casey has big and dangerous plans for her future as a high-rolling dealer, while Marco is struggling with the demands of fatherhood. They’re still each other’s best friend and worst enemy, and you still watch their every stupid move with your heart in your mouth. 

Fairn continues to make Casey the most exciting TV character of any scene she’s in, and Finan does even more beautiful work as Marco this time around. As well as funny and entertaining, he’s tender and desperate. They’re all desperate, and you would be too in their shoes. 

Martin Freeman does an excellent job of putting us in Chris’ shoes. His twitching jaw muscle alone works harder than most actors. Freeman convinced us on the Scouse accent last time, leaving room here to admire everything else he puts into the performance. The swallowing. The turning head. The silent nods to self. And, boy oh boy, the rage. Chris’ anger comes on like a boiler roaring into life. It’s totally convincing and, like the rest of The Responder, hard to watch.

Or at least, it would be hard to watch if it wasn’t accompanied by such humanity and humour. Schumacher’s writing has all the social conscience of Jimmy McGovern’s while also whirring with energy and wit. Some gags, like the one deliberately mixing up Philip Larkin and Andy McNab, or the one about the drive-in takeaway order placed mid-death threat, are old-school craft. More still are folded into the whole mixture, into the pitter-patter of vibrant dialogue that accompanies the action. 

Satisfyingly this time, that action devotes more space to Chris’ colleague Rachel (Adelayo Adedayo) than series one. Her story of surviving an abusive relationship is given proper exploration here and not swept cleanly away after the unforgettable scene in which she confronted her sadistic partner at his place of work. 

There’s more Rachel, more Chris under extreme pressure, more tension and more humour fizzing out from under the twisted cap of this shaken-up-bottle series. Without being able to speak to the finale, which wasn’t made available to preview, hot on the heels of Blue Lights series two, this one looks like another British crime drama triumph.  

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The Responder airs on Sundays at 9pm on BBC One. All episodes are available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.


4 out of 5