Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THE PROBLEM with starting at the top is that there's nowhere to go but down. Last week's episode of City Central (Sat BBC1) began with an almost insanely ominous build-up, with a thunderstorm crashing outside Christmas Street police station, while the staff wandered around dropping allusions to Macbeth and humming "I can feel it coming in the air tonight".

This week, the pressure of living up to that clearly got to Tony Jordan's sense of proportion: rounding off the series with a bang, he had vengeful hoods rig a gas explosion, which (presumably) wiped out both Sgt Mackey, the station's linchpin of a desk sergeant, and her errant son. Something a little more softly, softly would not just have been more plausible, it would also have been more in keeping with the series' understated tone and light moral touch. In context, this cataclysm (like the explosion that ended the last series of Between the Lines) looked like an admission of failure.

I don't want to sound too harsh, though. City Central is still the best police drama on television, by a long stretch. It has its pretensions - Christmas Street conducts its business in a chiaroscuro that must make identity parades a nightmare, and the holding cells offer a stark, primary- coloured comfort that's more Clerkenwell loft than Manchester nick. But it also has some startling qualities. For a start, its writers seem to share a knack for long spans of narrative. The saga of young PC Syden- ham's murder and its aftermath has wound through the whole series (with Sgt Mackey's exit the coda); but even within individual episodes, subplots have an unexpected spaciousness. Much of this week's episode was taken up with a ludicrously long chase sequence that seemed to pay homage to Bullitt, The French Connection and Marathon Man.

Most of the traps of cop TV are steadfastly resisted: few hugs, not much learning; comic sequences dropped in with a blessed casualness (last week, the farcically incompetent PC Green nearly blundered into PC Sydenham's killer, comedy colliding with tragedy). Also overt political messages are resisted (that DS McCormack and PC Jitlada are a mixed-race couple is never mentioned: what bothers them is the fact that she is his senior officer). The acting is in keeping with the writing - subdued realism and heightened absurdity effortlessly blended. Apparently, the BBC hasn't decided yet whether to make another series. To let it go would be criminal.

I feel ashamed that I haven't got round to mentioning Martial Law (Sun C5) before now. Sammo Hung - a Hong Kong action star whose CV includes Enter the Fat Dragon - plays Sammo Law, a Shanghai policeman and martial- arts expert who, for reasons too complicated and flimsy to go into, has been transferred to Los Angeles. There is a philosophical undertow - Sammo dispenses much Charlie Chan-like wisdom, and often shows up the inadequacies of bullish American machismo - but the basic premise is very simple: watching a chubby man with a worried expression doing somersaults and beating up villains with household implements is funny. Frankly, I can't understand why nobody spotted that before now. Marvellous.