When it doubt, watch the one with David Tennant. That’s not just a good life rule, that’s also your best bet as you make your way into the dense, high-concept crime drama Criminal, currently available to stream in its entirety on Netflix. Created by George Kay (Killing Eve) and Jim Field Smith (The Wrong Mans), Criminal is ambitious in its scope, spanning four European countries — the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Germany — with each country getting three episodes apiece. The set-up is the same, regardless of the country: Spend an hour with a different suspect and watch the investigative team try to crack them open for answers about the crime they’re possibly connected with. For fans of criminal procedurals or laser-focused character studies that stick to their subjects and embrace minimalism elsewhere, this is the Netflix binge you’ve been waiting for.
True to its title, Criminal deals with suspected criminals and the stories they tell to explain away any alleged wrongdoing. The cast of criminals utilized to tell these stories run the gamut from the familiar (the aforementioned Tennant, Hayley Atwell, Nathalie Baye, and Jérémie Renier are among the most recognizable) to the relatively unknown for many international viewers. In that latter category and turning in especially admirable performances are Criminal: France‘s Sara Giraudeau, as a survivor of the Bataclan bombing whose story doesn’t quite hold up upon further inspection, and Criminal: Spain‘s Eduard Fernández, who plays a smooth-talking criminal one investigator has been gunning for for years. To be fair, all of the actors recruited to play a suspect (characters who are are pleasingly and expertly fleshed out to a believable and engaging level through the writing) are inviting to watch. It’s the kind of role an actor can luxuriate in, having the spotlight turned on them as they each run through a range of emotions in a short period of time.
Also to Criminal‘s credit is the staging of it all; it’s arguably the sole genius stroke of this entire series. Here, the choice is made to keep action contained to one floor in a metropolitan police building. A majority of the action plays out in an interrogation room separated by the requisite two-way mirror where the rest of the investigative team sits and watches, confers, snipes, gripes, informs, and waits for a crack in the testimony to exploit. The only thing that changes between each of Criminal‘s segments is the view from the building’s hallway, with the cityscape changing to note the change in country. Because the set is the same for every country, with each respective country’s cast of characters shuffling in and out, a theatrical quality is added which helps crank up the tension when things really begin to heat up as a suspect’s story takes an unexpected turn — and believe you me, there’s always an unexpected turn.
Despite these high points, there’s something crushingly repetitive about Criminal, primarily because of its contained setting which risks restraining the action to the point it feels claustrophobic. Because of the constraints of setting and timing, which add nice realism when it comes to the procedural side of things, the action by design must move at such a clip that it’s tough as a viewer to get attached to these characters we’re supposed to get invested in. Even more frustrating, especially considering this is a show which puts an emphasis on the characters and unpacking the psychological motivations of suspect and investigator alike, is that a new suspect is interrogated with each episode. The limited amount of time we get to spend watching each suspect get the shakedown means there are exposition dumps all over the place and you have to be sharp to pick up on details to keep up. Don’t get me wrong, I like a smart series that demands I engage. But hinging 12 episodes on one of the most physically restrained aspects of the crime procedural formula — the bit where the suspect gets interrogated back at the station — is pretty gutsy when additionally trying to pack in layers of psychology tied to gender, politics, race, and beyond through just dialogue. There’s a reason the interrogation bits on shows like Law & Order last no more than 10 minutes, give or take — it can get pretty rote pretty quickly.
Even more disappointing is the half-baked subplots within each respective investigative team. Personal dramas play out between co-workers to semi-interesting results. In France, the men on the team don’t take kindly to a young woman stepping in as the boss; in Spain, the lead investigator carries on an ill-advised affair with a younger male co-worker; in the United Kingdom, one investigator is working up the nerve to ask his boss out. But because there’s comparatively less time doled out to explore the dynamics, it’s hard to latch on to anything substantial, if substantive material is, in fact, on offer.
All told, Criminal plays well for a specific group. Fans of crime dramas will have fun sinking their teeth into every episode as they get a feel for the different kinds of procedures deployed to take down a suspect depending on the country they’re in. But be warned: This is not a bingeable show. Spend too much time with Criminal and you risk getting bored stiff.