One of the frequent complaints about the Second Golden Age of Television is that there’s so much good TV being churned out at such a high rate that it’s impossible to watch all of it. But maybe the key is that you just don’t need to watch all of it immediately. Sometimes you can stumble upon a show you hadn’t even heard of, and it ends up becoming essential. Such is the case with Collateral, a four-hour BBC-produced limited mystery series that dropped on Netflix last week with little lead-time, despite major talent both in front of and behind the camera. Not only was this a pleasant surprise, but the series as a whole is a rich, compelling, and refreshingly joyous murder mystery that delivers on the promise of a good yarn and throws in tactfully navigated topical subject matter as an added bonus. Something of a mix between Homeland and Broadchurch, with a tiny dash of Fargo thrown in for good measure, Collateral is essential viewing.
Collateral was written in full by acclaimed British playwright David Hare, who’s also penned the screenplays for films like The Hours and The Reader. The story takes place in contemporary London and begins when a pizza deliveryman is shot dead on the job. It’s quickly discovered that the murder of this man—a suspected immigrant or refugee—was no accident, and was instead carefully planned. Its impact reaches far and wide, as Hare introduces a tapestry of characters that offer various points of view.
Carey Mulligan takes on the protagonist role as Kip Glaspie, a detective inspector and former pole vaulter who takes the case and recognizes something’s off from the get-go. She tracks down the murdered man’s two sisters, living illegally in a storage container, which further complicates the matter. Meanwhile MP and Shadow Minister for Transport David Mars (John Simm) is also wrapped up in the incident as his ex-wife Karen (Billie Piper) was the last person to see the pizza delivery man alive.
The first episode of the series introduces these characters and many more—including a female reverend with a secret; the suspicious manager of the pizzeria; and Kip’s pushy boss—as Hare spins a Robert Altman-like web with his ensemble. At first it’s a bit confusing as to how these disparate plotlines could ever come together, but Hare deserves a standing ovation for the way he cleverly connects the dots. And unlike many similarly-themed series, this one concludes in a supremely satisfying manner where threads aren’t left dangling, nor does it feel like the story has taken unnecessary detours.
Indeed, while on the surface Collateral has something in common with other compelling British mystery shows like Broadchurch or Happy Valley, Hare ensures his tale stands apart by focusing on a very political story that’s relevant to current events. The crux of the series is immigration, as the show takes place in a post-Brexit U.K., where tensions run high regarding questions of how to deal with the influx of both refugees from war-torn Syria, and immigrants from other continental European countries.
Though Kip’s partner wears his prejudices on his sleeve, Kip isn’t portrayed as some kind of bleeding-heart-liberal-here-to-save-the-day to counter him. The show covers a broad spectrum of politics, all with a deft hand as Hare miraculously avoids coming off as preachy or inorganic. The murdered man at the center of the investigation is not a British citizen, and so his detained sisters are treated differently depending on who they encounter. This offers a natural place for the politics of U.K. immigration to be discussed by police officers, politicians, and members of the clergy, which in turn provides a broad spectrum of opinions.
This political backdrop serves as the foundation for Collateral, and it’s one that elevates the show above a simple mystery waiting to be solved. The mystery itself is compelling to be sure, but the characters feel immensely more real because they’re given socio-politically relevant points of view, colored by their own experiences. You know, like real life.
Carey Mulligan delivers a tremendous lead performance here as Kip, a character who is rich and complex instead of one-dimensional or clichéd. To its credit, Collateral is chock-full of great characters, and refreshingly, Kip isn’t portrayed as the sole woman on the force standing up to The Man or a “strong female character” with a troubling trait (like alcoholism) that’s supposed to make her interesting. Instead, Kip is just incredibly well-written, and played with assuredness and compassion by Mulligan.
Mulligan is the heart and soul of Collateral, but the show’s MVP is its director, SJ Clarkson, who helmed all four episodes. The British filmmaker honed her craft on shows like Life on Mars and EastEnders but rose to prominence as the director of the first two episodes of the Marvel Netflix series Jessica Jones, and it was on the strength of her work there she was enlisted to helm the first two episodes of the Marvel team-up series The Defenders.
With Collateral, Clarkson takes a beautifully cinematic approach to telling this story, filling the frame with color, warmth, and dynamic lighting choices. Her framing tells the audience even more about the characters than is on the page, and each episode opens with a popular song blaring, setting the stage for the hour to come while the credits roll.
Indeed, British crime dramas can have a tendency to get bogged down in glum moodiness (I love me some Broadchurch, but there are only so many episodes you can watch in a row before falling into a pit of grief yourself), which is why the joyousness that persists throughout Collateral is such a treat. The show takes its subject matter seriously to be sure, but there’s still time for Kip to have a rat-a-tat conversation with her partner about her pole vaulting days, or for characters to chat about something other than the exposition at hand. A little of this goes a long way, and it makes the story all the more enjoyable and, most importantly, more human.
In an era where must-see TV shows pop up every week, Collateral is an easy recommend. At a mere four hours, it’s not a huge time commitment, and you’ll feel completely and totally satisfied by the end. It’s a rich, thoughtful story about immigration, as well as a compelling murder mystery and an ensemble character drama all in one. Excelling at only one of these things would be reason enough to check it out, but the fact that Hare, Clarkson, and Mulligan deliver on all three make this a genuine must-watch in a sea of TV shows vying for your attention.
All four episodes of Collateral are now available to stream on Netflix.