The Responder: Season 2 REVIEW – Intense After Dark

Martin Freeman teeters on the edge, and what a ride it is.

the responder martin freeman

Contra a thinkpiece I wrote in 2022 – in which I stretched a little too hard drawing comparisons between the first season of The Responder and Disco Elysium – Martin Freeman’s professionally exhausted nightshift copper hasn’t magically solved all his problems. In fact, he’s adroit at ginning up new ones, often with hilarious consequences. Yes, it’s more of the same, but that same is quite good.

Even without the bells and whistles of jarring, screaming white noise that the first season used quite promiscuously to represent mental troubles, it’s all too easy to feel sympathy in your bones with the endless Sisyphean horrors life foists upon Freeman here. It would also have been too easy to make this a po-faced, grim slog through his twilit existence (and more generally, a Liverpool made up entirely of the wrong side of the tracks), so The Responder’s sheer sense of fun is something to be praised.

To be sure, it may be the well-worn trick of ratcheting up the stakes and tension so high that any measure of relief seems like a gutbusting zinger, but this is a trick The Responder deploys exceptionally well. Kevin Eldon’s demented lost soul repeatedly asking “Have you seen the sun?” and eventually receiving a blunt scouse reply of “Nah, I don’t read that shite” elevates it all beyond the level of an end-of-the-pier groaner.

The general twattish nature of Liverpool’s criminal underworld, too, is mined effectively for comedy. I once saw an excellent description of Oz’s prison-gang overlord Simon Adebisi as being ‘as pathetic as he is terrifying’, and for The Responder’s faces and villains it’s very much a case of ‘you must be this pathetic and terrifying to ride’. Unfortunately the main baddy of this outing ends up a bit flat even by these standards, particularly by comparison to Ian Hart’s scousefroed kingpin from the first season. He’s most interesting when he’s being chummy, but for much of it he’s a MacGuffin in human form, providing a potentially-violent reason that other characters have to do x, y and even z but never leavening that with much colour of his own.

By contrast, the obvious weakness of the first run of The Responder was the amount of time Freeman’s rookie partner (Adelayo Adedayo) spent off in her own little bubble. Here that – for one glorious moment – finally smashes into the main plotline, yet I feel I know why the creators hesitated. It’s when they try to tie everything in together that you see the leaps in logic and the sanding over the cracks. The cheats, basically.

Part of that is Freeman’s character, in his grumpy-but-lovable way, wanting to keep Adedayo’s character out of all his wicked-foul business. And that’s a point of the narrative that does ring true, even if that bell has already been firmly rung, and The Responder is already delving into the wicked-foul stuff with such palpable glee.

Likewise Josh Finan and Emily Fairn, an even more natural and entertaining duet if anything, spend far too much time not sharing a scene – and there it definitely is because of the writers’ thumb on the scales. Finan’s place in proceedings gets derailed by, sigh, having to look after a baby. Given the emphasis this season puts on legacy, though, and what’s passed down from parent to child, this is a far more reasonable use of throwing a surprise child into the mix than the old Cousin Oliver syndrome, one of the traditional forms of jumping the shark. And it would be more of a surprise if a character like Finan didn’t whelp a child while barely out of short trousers himself.

However, The Responder’s invocation of legacy is far better served by the sadly deceased Bernard Hill’s final role as Freeman’s dad. It can be a little on the nose in displaying that yes, this is absolutely where he gets it from – but it can achieve some pathos as well. Perversely, the best example of this is when Freeman snarls a comment that’s clearly intended just to hurt, and Hill fires straight back with something equally barbed and empty. The pettier faults end up the more humanising.

While it frustrates me that seemingly everyone now knows Fairn’s character as ‘town centre Casey’ (and not even the hazier ‘middle-of-town Casey’ they introduced her as), I can forgive the narrative distorting to give her more screentime since she is so clearly one of the most watchable figures present. What frustrates me more is the fear that she will end up a Julia Garner figure, a real standout from a gritty crime drama who gets swept up into some self-indulgent crap rather than the kind of roles her talent deserves.

(I maintain Fairn and Finan would steal the show as a comic duo on something like Inside No. 9.)

The weakness of The Responder’s connective tissue is mitigated by how when it’s moved past that, and has gotten into the scene it clearly wanted to do and didn’t much care how that happened, then we’re into the real meat of it. Recent and similarly-named Kate Winslet vehicle The Regime also suffered from weak connective tissue, but there, the things it was stringing together were often a bit flimsy as well. Generally, The Responder doesn’t have that problem.

Given the deluge of burdens Freeman labours beneath, once we’re in a scene, there’s more than enough tension to keep you going. Even completely benign scenarios, thanks to the chronic SLS suffered by pretty well every character we meet, can have you on a knife-edge. And the frequent references to how poorly everyone’s paid and the general state of society, which could elsewhere have been clumsy social commentary, are here a firm building block of The Responder’s whole hell-world edifice.

The media’s recurrent love of the rough, tough, criminal world is prone to both eclipsing everything else that’s going on, and also to episodes of pure twaddle, and The Responder is an example of both – but it’s not fool enough to take that too seriously, even if the terminally fed-up Freeman takes everything very seriously indeed. You will inevitably be drawn in by him, hoping against hope that it does all somehow get better, but also with the rubbernecker desire to see how much worse it can get. And you won’t be disappointed on the latter.

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the responder martin freeman
The Responder suffers from the amount of tricks and shortcuts it needs to get where it's going, but the destination is more than worthwhile. It remains very firmly the kind of viewing experience that's a massive relief simply not to have to live out yourself - which is of course also what makes it so funny.