Better review: BBC One series with Leila Farzad and Andrew Buchan puts a new spin on crime drama staples

Leila Farzad and Andrew Buchan star in Better, a BBC One crime drama that grapples with ideas of redemption

This review contains spoilers for all five episodes of Better.

“All confession is selfish,” argues Vernon (Anton Lesser), introducing one of Better’s more interesting ideas. The new BBC One crime drama is the latest in a long line to grapple with ideas of redemption, depicting a police officer long-implicated in the activities of a local drugs baron questioning her place in the world after a sudden wake-up call; on a moment-to-moment level, the story of DI Lou Stacks (Leila Farzad) isn’t necessarily so different from characters we’ve seen in Luther or Happy Valley, or about three different detectives in Line of Duty. There’s a sense in which this is perhaps well-trodden ground.

What’s striking about Better, though, is its suggestion that Stacks’ sudden moral introspection is fundamentally self-indulgent. “We confess to unburden ourselves, to get shot of something we don’t want to carry anymore – what’s not selfish about that?” continues Vernon, a corrupt police officer now retired in ignominy himself; there’s a comparison drawn between Stacks’ newfound desire to confess and the way her father, once a decorated colleague of Vernon’s, would swoop in to take undeserved credit to build his own legend. If there’s an underlying vanity to Stacks’ attempt to better herself, it feels like a new spin on the idea of a corrupt police officer trying to extricate themselves from something just a little too late.

It is just a suggestion, though, a subtext that Better toys with without necessarily committing to. Still, at least the series has the space for that sort of equivocation, a result of its slow-burn thriller stylings. Better unfolds like a Damascene conversion in slow-motion, unpicking the individual impulses that motivate a change of heart after decades benefitting from turning a blind eye. Is it vanity? Is it religion? Is it atonement? Is it conscience? Is it, maybe, just sheer exhaustion?

All of this is complicated further by the fact that Stacks is genuinely friends with gangster Col McHugh (Andrew Buchan) – across nearly 20 years, each helping the other build influence and rise higher in the police and criminal underworld, they’ve become properly and meaningfully close to one another. Stacks’ newfound desire to walk away from this world – and, of course, to walk away unscathed, her reputation and more importantly her finances intact – can only bring that friendship to a surely violent halt.

Leila Farzad as Lou and Andrew Buchan as Col in Better, stood in the forrest (Credit: BBC/Sister Pictures/Ross Fergusan)Leila Farzad as Lou and Andrew Buchan as Col in Better, stood in the forrest (Credit: BBC/Sister Pictures/Ross Fergusan)
Leila Farzad as Lou and Andrew Buchan as Col in Better, stood in the forrest (Credit: BBC/Sister Pictures/Ross Fergusan)

Buchan and Farzad are best in the scenes they share together, always emphasising the weight of history and genuine depth of affection between Stacks and McHugh – even, or really in fact especially, in their most explosive confrontations. Not unlike co-creators Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent’s previous show Humans, Better feels like an actor-led show first and foremost; it’s rarely showy, with a script and direction content to get out of Buchan and Farzad’s way and let them act. (That’s not to say it’s poorly written – structurally it’s quite precise, with a keenly-calibrated sense of how to build each cliffhanger around a pivot that changes what the show is going forward – but rather just that it’s clear what the drama is built in service to.)

For all that comparisons to Happy Valley are clearly unflattering – even with my longstanding doubts about Happy Valley, it was always clearly in a different league to Better – the two shows share more than just geography. Both engage with broadly similar themes, and approach them in broadly similar ways: Better, like Happy Valley’s finale, tends towards a smaller and more scaled back outlook, eschewing the grand conspiracies and elaborate action set pieces of something like Line of Duty. It’s a smart approach, again in keeping with the decision to emphasise Buchan and Farzad and that central relationship.

Gradually, Better builds towards revealing that McHugh has been on his own parallel journey, questioning his place as head of Leeds’ criminal underworld in much the same way that Stacks has been re-evaluating her role as his collaborator (and for broadly similar reasons, too). As a near-final grace note, it helps Better click into place, reclarifying what the show has always been about; that fifth episode, and its final scene in particular, goes a long way towards emphasising where Better’s greatest strengths lie, underscoring exactly what makes it worth watching.

It’s not, by any means, perfect. At times Better can veer frustratingly towards the morally simplistic, even by the standards of a morally simplistic genre, and while it does genuinely get better as it goes along, any recommendation based primarily on the final minutes of the fifth hour of a five-episode drama should be taken with some scepticism. But then, you know, it is a really good final scene.

Better is available now on BBC iPlayer, with new episodes airing weekly on Monday nights. I watched all five episodes before writing this review. You can read more of our coverage of Better here, and find more of our TV reviews here.