Given certain events over the past few years, it’s not a great time to be a police officer. Public trust is at an all-time low thanks to a conveyor belt of bombshell revelations and failures.
But despite real world sentiment, it’s a different story when it comes to fictional bobbies on the small screen. Give us a sniff of a high octane cop drama, and you’ll find us ready and waiting with plenty of provisions in place.
Take smash hit Line of Duty and white knuckle thriller Bodyguard. Both pulled in record viewers, and now ITV is back with Karen Pirie, from World Productions, the same team that brought the previous two to our screens. Needless to say, hopes were high.
Based on Val McDermid’s The Distant Echo, which sold over 17 million copies worldwide, it begins with a true crime podcast digging up an unsolved murder from 1996 in the university town of St Andrews, Scotland.
The victim: 19 year old Rosie Duff. Cause of death: a rather gruesome stab wound. The three students who found her were all prime suspects, but were freed due to a lack of forensic evidence. And then, it seems, detectives didn’t bother trying further, and instead hoped the case would fade into the mists of time. And it did - all until “some woke millennial found a microphone” 25 years later, that is.
The provocative podcaster is riling her listeners with fresh theories and details, in turn piling pressure on the largely old, white, male St Andrews police for answers. Who to get on the case? Who to go through the motions? Crucially, who would help the optics? Ah, yes! A woman.
And so titular character DS Karen Pirie (Lauren Lyle) gets her step up from breaking up domestic disturbances to serious crime. It’s not the best of introductions; our heroine gets the call after an Echo Falls-fuelled night of passion with a co-worker. But she suits up, swallows her imposter syndrome, and strides in, ready to look into an incident that took place when she was three years-old.
She has to battle ageism, sexism and class-ism, flying at her from all directions: bosses, peers, witnesses. Her tactics aren’t traditional (she seems to do a large portion of investigating on the sofa, glass of wine in hand - a rather too realistic portrayal of WFH if you ask me) and it’s causing ire amongst her superiors. They appointed her to fail - not to do any actual detecting. Pirie’s poking is also triggering fresh pain for Duff’s family - two thuggish brothers - and the original three suspects, who have grown into a nervous, shifty bunch with something to hide.
She’s routinely hauled back in front of her bosses for a telling off, but Pirie pushes on, staggered by the mountain of mistakes and mishandling on an investigation for a victim who had the audacity to have a sex life, and go out late at night, by herself. In short, “a woman doing everything in her power to get murdered”.
It’s a decent enough plot but the execution is as bungled as the police work Pirie finds herself uncovering. There’s an element of finesse that’s missing, a shame considering the production team’s CV. Weighty subjects are being tackled - societal misogyny and victim-blaming, small town racism, trial by social media, vigilantism and the biggie, systematic police abuse and failures - but none hit home.
Before anything meaningful can develop, a wedge of comic relief is inexplicably manhandled in, which is fine, but it only really works if the scenes in question are tense enough. Despite rooting for Pirie, the show has all the polish and dialogue of a live-action Scottish Scooby Doo.
The most dramatic shots are those of the Forth Road Bridge, which seems to appear in every other scene. Lovely bridge, that.
Karen Pirie runs for three feature-length episodes every Sunday night at 8pm from September 25 to October 9, with each episode available to stream on ITV Hub afterwards