Not nearly enough television writers remember how engaging it can be to be on the outside of a conversation trying to get in. And when it comes to blue-light drama, the problem is even worse. There's a kind of general dread of misunderstanding, which is supposed to be in favour of audience seduction but actually works against it.
As expository sentence after expository sentence clunks off the conveyor belt, you're never left in doubt for a moment. What if you were to blame the writer for your confusion and leave? And yet not fully understanding what a stranger is about or why they're reacting as they are is what really intrigues us. Stephen Butchard gets this, I think, which is why Good Cop is much better cop than most police procedurals.
The exemplary figure of the title is the unfortunately named John Paul Rocksavage (and I can't think of any excuse for the effortful Dickensian oddity of that name), a beat policeman of essentially melancholy strain. An early encounter on the beach with a bitter ex-girlfriend suggests that past sorrows may account for his downbeat manner, nicely caught by Warren Brown. But present frustrations are in the mix, too. While off duty in a café, John confronts a nasty local thug who is harassing a waitress, and the villain's sneering contempt (he promises to "hammer" the next policeman he meets in retaliation) hints at the attrition of a job that daily confronts you with inadequacies of justice.
The opening sequence has already made it clear that Rocksavage will end up with blood on his hands, and it's no great surprise to find out whose blood it is. The way it gets there might strain your credulity a little – a chain of coincidences that allows Butchard to wedge his lead character into a corner where he has very little choice about what he does next. It's also true that Good Cop has some expository clunks of its own. It probably wasn't necessary to get the lead character's dying father to try and correct his gloom with the line, "You see too much shite... Life's good, people are good", even if Michael Angelis can do loving sagacity while lying in bed (literally). But those flaws are more than outweighed by indirections and detours that make it come to life.
Rocksavage's first call-out is a case in point, he and his partner being dispatched to a reported domestic dispute that turns out to be a tragic cul-de-sac (in terms of television narrative). A baby has died and the mother assumes her step-son has been involved. In fact, it's a natural death, muddied by misunderstanding and other sorrows. The situation mocks the jaunty phrase with which Rocksavage's partner had inaugurated their shift: "Ready to do some good?" How do you make good such a human mess? John Paul's partner doesn't worry about it, just nicks a chocolate biscuit from the shopping left abandoned on the front step. But Butchard's hero can't let it go, and his helplessness there feeds directly into the violence with which he acts later. Well worth following.
How proud E M Forster would have been to know that one day he would give a title to a BBC4 quiz – Only Connect. It's not a bad one, as it happens, with a genuinely novel framework in which the contestants have to establish the link between wildly disparate bits of information, which are revealed one at a time by the presenter, Victoria Coren. Connection between The Treachery of Images and French Fries? No idea? What if I add the Saxophone? Still not there? Well, maybe Tintin will finally prod you towards Belgium. It's a kind of epistemological strip-tease really, and once you've persuaded yourself that you've caught a flash of nipple it's all but impossible not to wait for the full reveal. You can try it out online, but I warn you that it's very moreish.