The Responder: Citizen Of Martinaise

Martin Freeman is excellent in The Responder - and a little like another great unhappy cop.

The Responder
The Responder

The Responder, one of those dodgy-cop dramas in the vein of The Shield, only ever comes off the rails when it’s basically over. At that point it falls prey to the same malady of much fiction about troubled people – the problems of the narrative are all wrapped up, and so (‘I guess’, you can hear it shrug) the internal mental problems of its main character are too.

(Part of what made The Sopranos great was that its mentally unwell and fundamentally evil frontman did not get better.)

It’s with great reluctance that I do Martin Freeman this disservice, since his troubled beat cop is the cornerstone of the whole edifice. Never mind that he’s doing an impeccable scouse accent (something many actual scousers fail to master), the man sells every minute of it – when other characters keep saying he looks like shit, it’s not without merit, he’s got bags under his eyes big enough that he could take them on a long holiday.

Freeman’s come a long way to get to here – I mean the actor, not the character. From the humble beginnings of Tim from The Office and one of the players in an early Mitchell and Webb sketch show, those who knew him then would find him practically unrecognisable in Sherlock and The Hobbit. But there’s an even greater recognition gulf at work between then and now. If Tim from The Office met the copper from The Responder down a dark alley, he might actually die of fright.

Honestly, even describing him as ‘troubled’ is underselling Freeman’s performance, since the sheer weight of the world that’s visible in everything he says and does is easily drawing closer to ‘tortured’ territory. And The Responder never makes the mistake of some big, flamboyant reveal where there is one single reason for all his woes, either. Various different sources are hinted at, but given recent history, you can rattle off a whole list of your own reasons for feeling dreadful and unstable – they’ll probably apply here too.

Freeman’s is a character which, whatever he might do, we can understand. He wants to do good, he tries to do good – dear lord, how he tries – but doing good is not an easy, wipe-clean process, it takes actual work. And frequently, actual suffering. The simple everyday pressures of life have broken something inside him. Who doesn’t have their own version of that?

The cop drama is a very well-established style of television, from the police procedural, to the single-named super-detective drama, to, yes, more cynical pieces about cops on the take. But for most of the runtime, it was the 2019 murder-mystery video game Disco Elysium which I couldn’t get out of my head. It could never be a straight adaptation, as Disco Elysium is too dense and cerebral – and also too gamified – to be properly adapted into any other medium, apart possibly from the tabletop RPG.

But Disco Elysium casts you as a copper muzzily coming to after a world-ending breakdown, the exact sort of thing Freeman spends most of The Responder teetering on the edge of. Had The Responder ended on a sourer note, and then hit a Life On Mars-style reality shift, it could all too easily have been the prequel.

What started me on this parallel was that both works heavily feature a pair of vulgar street ragamuffins, and here’s the one place that really could be a straight adaptation. The Responder’s duo, Marco and middle-of-town Casey, are a bit older and less aggressive than Disco Elysium’s Cuno and Cunoesse, but they’d have a fair shot in an open audition. Simply being near their sort of flotsam and shitsam sets the scene in a way no establishing shot ever could.

Speaking of establishing shots, though, one particular highlight of Disco Elysium is the worldbuilding – a planet like but also unlike our own, where a whole galaxy of familiar facets all come together to create something genuinely alien. Again, this is a narrative choice too dense to be adapted at all easily in any genre that doesn’t have room built in for extensive blocks of reading material.

But if you had to pick a placeholder for Disco Elysium’s district of Martinaise, Liverpool isn’t too bad a choice – a major and dilapidated port town at the crux point between a couple of different cultures, which has ended up no more and no less a social mishmash than you might expect, located in the archipelago which is the traditional centre of the world. Ignore the accents and they’ve got that bang on.

I mentioned Disco Elysium’s sheer density earlier, and by this I mean text, whole volumes of the stuff. Heavy going even for an RPG, the various parts of your man’s subconscious will frequently chime in on events if they have something to say – not least ‘chills’, always happy to set the scene in hardboiled noir monologue style. This really couldn’t work on TV, but Freeman’s moments of severe stress, between his facial acting and the jarring, piercing white noise, are probably as good as this could possibly get in a televisual medium.

Most notably, though, Disco Elysium has two mysteries running tandem. The first is the more conventional ‘who did the murder’, but the second is ‘how did this man come to be in this state?’. The Responder has no particular secrecy around the crimes happening, and so takes the second and runs with it. Where normally it’s the victim’s story unfolding piece by piece, here it’s the copper’s.

In neither case do you get the exact story mapped out point by point wikipedia-style, but you do end up privy to enough background information that you can make an educated guess. And in both cases, too, the journey by which you’ll discover the protagonist’s seldom-runs-straight story can quickly become frighteningly intense.

If only The Responder could conjure up a partner anywhere near as good as Disco Elysium’s wry stoic Kim Kitsuragi. Adelayo Adedayo’s rookie cop is incredibly weak tea, with her own sideplot providing little more than a distraction. Granted the whole idea is that she’s weak tea, an inexperienced, wide-eyed, green, unseasoned walking stereotype, but for five hours the show hammers on this single point, and never once seeks to stray from that path.

(This isn’t really Adedayo’s fault, to be honest – she can only work with what she’s given, and here that’s a dreadful kitchen-sink affair which goes nowhere and adds nothing.)

Which is a shame, because the rest of the supporting cast presents some real gems, not least Ian Hart, who’s also been keeping a dead-on scouse twang in his back pocket, and David Bradley as the same kind of incomprehensible treat he was in Hot Fuzz. And I’ve already mentioned Josh Finan’s Marco and Emily Fairn’s Casey, who are the kind of natural double-act that’s likely to pop up in something like Inside No. 9 at some point.

I mentioned how The Responder’s attempt to wrap everything up fell a little flat, and this is partly down to the verisimilitude. Having been presented a world so sprawling and messy and lacking in solid answers – so realistic, in short – the mind instinctively rejects the idea that it can ever all be tied up.

It’s the same with Disco Elysium. While its open-ended gameplay can’t help but suit this gritty messiness a little better, having its most prominent questions (not least ‘who the hell am I?’) actually answered is a little like coming back to earth with a bump. The dreamy, almost mystical air it all began with gives way to cold, hard facts – although here we’re at least starting to diverge, since nothing about The Responder is either dreamy or mystical.

But the one clearest similarity is that these are both works so well realised you can get lost in them – jump headlong in and stay there for a good long while. It’s not escapism in the classic sense, it’s not like living vicariously through a character who’s incredibly rich and rides dragons and all that. However, it is an escape from one’s own reality, into one which is very different (NB this may not apply if you are a serving police officer).

‘Slice of life’ is a term generally used in the same way as the ‘coffeeshop AU’ is in fanfiction, to describe works in which the characters pootle around doing their everyday things and nothing much happens, it’s borderline cosy. A lot happens in both The Responder and Disco Elysium. However, they’re definitely slices of life – slices, crucially, of someone else’s life. And once you’ve got your breath back, you may find yourself quite thankful for a more boring existence.

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