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Suspect review: ambitious Channel 4 drama stars James Nesbitt as detective searching for answers

James Nesbitt interrogates a new suspect in each episode of Channel 4’s new crime drama

There’s a question hanging over Channel 4’s new crime drama Suspect: did Christina Frater kill herself, or was she murdered? It’s ambiguous, moreso than such dramas often allow for. The idea that she was murdered often seems less of a foregone procedural conclusion and more of desperate fiction clung to by the investigating officer – her father, Detective Sergeant Danny Frater (James Nesbitt), who didn’t realise his daughter was dead until he turned up at the morgue one morning and found her lying on a slab. He can’t accept the possibility that Christina killed herself, and his investigation – obsessive, extreme, unethical – is borne of denial as much as anything else.

Danny and Christina were estranged – obviously; it took him days to realise she’d died – and he learns more about her through his investigation than he ever really knew in life. He interrogates coworkers he didn’t know she had, friends he’d never met, a partner he’d never heard of, and he finds out about milestones he missed without even realising they’d happened. Danny was so absent from Christina’s life he’s only now learning about her in death – and every time he insists that Christina would never have taken her own life, that it must have been a murder, there’s a nagging sense that maybe he never knew her at all.

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Suspect positions Danny at something of a remove from the audience as a result. He’s volatile, quick to jump to conclusions and level baseless accusations. His investigation soon strays outside the law, and he’s taking personal and professional liberties in pursuit of a truth that won’t and can’t bring him any closer to his daughter. “You keep missing the bigger picture,” insists his ex-wife Susannah. “Christina is gone.” There’s something quite sad about Danny – abrasive, chauvinistic, and emotionally stunted – and James Nesbitt brings a compelling wounded quality to this essentially quite myopic and narrow-minded character.

Fundamentally, of course, it’s still just another quite dour drama about an angsty, brooding man driven to extremes when a woman in his life is killed (complete with hazy hallucinations of Christina motivating Danny, unavoidably cliché even if they’re well-executed). It might even still turn out to be that she really was murdered. An obvious candidate is established early on, not quite following the Law & Order “the most famous actor is always the murderer” rule but a close cousin of it, with most viewers likely to clock that early on. Suspect, at least, tempers that angst with a welcome ambivalence, never quite buying into the cycles of rage and retribution that underpin the genre.

James Nesbitt as Danny and Richard E Grant as Harry, stood in the grounds of a horse racing stadium (Credit: Laurence Cendrowicz/Channel 4)

What’s unusual about Suspect is that every episode – each a little under half an hour in runtime – is dedicated entirely to a single interrogation. Danny is the only character in appear in every episode (though not, conspicuously, the only character to appear in more than one), and each instalment plays out as a very closely-focused two-hander between Nesbitt and a new guest actor. It’s a welcome experiment, injecting some necessary ambition into the genre – UK television is dominated by crime drama, and any willingness to play with the form is a relief – and goes a long way towards making Suspect feel distinct.

The obvious highlight is the fourth episode, which sees Nesbitt tangle with a local gangster played by Sacha Dhawan (Doctor Who). As is often the case, Dhawan is electric, lending a relatively simple character type a real sense of vulnerability beneath a cracked façade. Each episode has a nicely theatrical quality to it – understated and pared back, putting the actors’ performances front and centre – and makes good use of television as an episodic medium. Sometimes, admittedly, it feels as though Suspect could do with a degree more propulsive momentum (it’s probably not designed to be binge-watched in one sitting) but the format has clear potential. There’s an obvious appeal to Suspect as a returning anthology series, with a new detective and roster of guest stars each year.

It can lean a little broad, sometimes; for all that the series has a certain scepticism for Danny’s investigation, it’s keen to make sure you get the point, not so much sketching its themes lightly but underlining them with a big red marker. Equally, it’s hard to worry too much about simplistic and to-the-point dialogue when its drawled by Richard E Grant, and there’s also enough flair to Dries Vos’ direction that those moments don’t stand out too much. (One nice, small detail: a vision of Christina, filmed at a tilted angle, where a tear rolls parallel to the camera rather than down her face.)

Ultimately, Suspect’s big structural conceit makes up for a lot of its flaws: it’s markedly more interesting than it might otherwise have been as a result of its unusual format, and that experimental dimension softens some of its more generic aspects.

Suspect begins on Channel 4 on Sunday 19 June. I’ve seen the first 7 of a total of 8 episodes before writing this review.