The title is a clue, really: there’s a reason why ITV’s latest crime drama is called DI Ray rather than In the Firing Line or CSH: Birmingham. It’s a much more focused, much more individual take on a police drama – as much a character study as it is a police procedural, built around the eponymous detective inspector rather than the crime she solves. Certainly, DI Ray is still recognisably an ITV crime drama, but it feels like something has been refined within its most familiar aspects because of that careful character work: the series is worth watching first and foremost for its title character.
The series opens with Detective Sergeant Rachita Ray’s (Parminder Nagra) long sought-after promotion to Detective Inspector, and her assignment to a new case: a “culturally specific homicide” involving a local South Asian family. The term – invented for the show but inspired by real such phrases – is a bureaucratic obfuscation that reveals the assumptions imposed on cases like this one; Ray’s colleagues are, if not openly dismissive, then certainly disinclined to take the case particularly seriously. They’re ready to make arrests with little information and without applying much scrutiny to the evidence they do have – they have an idea of what’s happened, more of a generalised expectation than an informed conclusion, and treat it as established fact from the start.
Ray, for her part, is less sure, and bristles against the shortcuts her colleagues are taking; gradually it becomes clear that the murder is more complicated than they allowed for, and Ray’s investigation sees her drawn into the world of modern-day slavery and Birmingham’s organised crime rings. As a crime thriller, DI Ray is well-structured; it moves with an easy confidence, building its reveals and reversals cleverly. Early on, there’s a particularly nice iteration of a classic “here’s why this evidence doesn’t mean what you think” scene, and – in a Jed Mercurio-produced show, this probably doesn’t constitute a spoiler – it’s also got a great cliffhanger at one point, memorable not for what happens exactly but the specific cruelty with which it’s executed.
The series is well-directed, too, with directors Audrey Cooke and Alex Pillai seizing on a number of little details that gives DI Ray weight and texture; the way a glass of water is set down during an interrogation scene, how one character brushes off another, that a suspect has wet themselves when armed police stormed their house. (That’s a particularly nice note, actually, another way in which the series announces its concern for its characters beyond the norm.) Cooke and Pillai make good use as well of a more-stylish-than-usual police precinct – all shades of green and panes of glass – and the whole series is, on a basic level, nice to look at.
As we’ve already established, though, DI Ray’s greatest strength is its main character. It’s quite an understated, nuanced performance from Parminder Nagra, deftly navigating the demands of the series; there’s the steely resolve that’s characteristic of crime drama detectives, of course, but equally there’s a sense of how that’s born of quite an inhibited quality too. The series offers an almost unique insight into its lead, really, always taking care to centre her and her experience and her self-doubts; by the end of its four episodes, you’ll know Rachita Ray better than Alec Hardy or Steve Arnott.
Some of the best scenes in the series are those shared between Ray and her colleague PS Tony Khatri (a charming Maanuv Thiara), a police officer who’s more comfortable in himself than Ray is in herself; their growing friendship, and the impact he has on her, is very much the spine of the series. Thiara and Nagra are great scene partners, and the third episode (probably the strongest of DI Ray as a whole) proves particularly memorable for this big, emotionally cathartic moment Khatri prompts for Ray – a moment that’s central to the series’ exploration of identity and place.
Part of what helps set DI Ray apart from other crime drama is that it is also about these big themes – there’s a subtext beyond the moment-to-moment plot mechanics of the criminal investigation – which are well articulated by writer Maya Sondhi. Sondhi (who you might know as Line of Duty’s PC Maneet Bindra) has a particularly strong ear for dialogue, and DI Ray has a good handle on its conversations throughout: between interrogator and suspect, between translator and witness, between therapist and patient. These moments are DI Ray’s best, and they lend the series a real weight and substance beyond being Just Another Crime Drama.
Ultimately, DI Ray isn’t a series that reinvents the wheel – but it does, maybe more importantly, manage to find a way to make it turn in a new direction. There are aspects of it that, perhaps, might’ve been better served by a slightly longer runtime, but it otherwise manages to achieve a lot across four episodes, making for an impressive showcase for Nagra in particular. DI Ray tells a complete story, and tells it well, but the strength of these four episodes will likely leave audiences hoping for more.
DI Ray begins on ITV on Monday 2 May at 9pm, with new episodes airing nightly through the week until Thursday. You can read NationalWorld’s exclusive interview with DI Ray writer and creator Maya Sondhi right here.