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Blue Lights series two review – last year’s breakout police hit is as beautifully tense as ever
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Blue Lights series two review – last year’s breakout police hit is as beautifully tense as ever

Is it a stretch to call Blue Lights, which is back for season two, the United Kingdom’s answer to The Wire? Well, yes. In all honesty that would be a bit much – it’s more like a cross between The Wire and Holby City. But the police drama was one of the breakout hits of 2023 because, beneath the soapy surface of its interactions between rookie cops, it has a clear-eyed, humane view of policing as an impossible job. Whatever we might think of the force generally, a combination of societal breakdown on the streets and corruption/mismanagement in the corridors of power makes any attempt to carry a badge and maintain order a futile gesture, like standing on a beach trying to mop away the tide. As it was in Baltimore, so it is in Belfast.

Blue Lights comes at this recipe for bracingly pessimistic drama from a particular angle, sitting itself as it does in modern Northern Ireland. We are post-Troubles, which is to say that the schisms and resentments that caused the Troubles are still there, being carefully – or perhaps not so carefully – managed to prevent embers again becoming flames. Season one revolved around the police’s battle with a local Republican crime family, the McIntyres, who it turned out were being propped up by the British security services, meaning any effort to do the simple work of arresting these criminals for committing crimes was met with the show’s insidious catchphrase, “double-oh bee”. Messing with MI5’s mysterious and probably misguided work was, for the humble bobby on the beat, out of bounds.

A year on from the McIntyres’ fall, the space they left at the top of Belfast’s drug-dealing hierarchy has been filled by … we’re not sure. But by the end of the first episode we know that it is not just Catholics who have an issue with former soldiers becoming crime bosses. Yet whereas Blue Lights once treated drugs as a mere side-effect of old rivalries rumbling on, now they’re a stark symbol of society fragmenting. The first two call-outs for our police constable friends are a rough sleeper lying in a park, dead from a heroin overdose, and a pharmacist being threatened by a young man whose methadone prescription hasn’t come through. “These last six months,” says the pharmacist, cowering behind toughened glass, “it’s just desperate people screaming at me.”

Impossible job … Andi Osho in Blue Lights.View image in fullscreen

The new realities of a troubled city are summed up in a scene that follows the classic Blue Lights formula. Two “peelers” in a squad car receive news on their radios of a violent domestic disturbance. They nee-nah it over to the house in question. We hold our breath as they enter, not knowing what peril lies in wait. Soon, though, because Blue Lights takes a rosy view of how resourceful and sympathetic individual police officers are – virtually everyone on this fictional force is an idealistic champion of vulnerable people – the cops have talked down and befriended a man who is smashing up his home because he is deep in personal crisis. He’s not bad or dangerous at all: the problem is that he has been waiting months for a mental health assessment. “Fuck’s sake,” says Constable Annie Conlon (Katherine Devlin). “Is everything just fucked?”

Its gift for plain speaking is one thing that makes Blue Lights such rewarding drama, but the difficult political truths are softened by a weakness for that staple of escapist emergency-services soaps, the workplace romance. Annie is on patrol with new recruit Shane Bradley (Frank Blake) – she’s already enjoyed accidentally seeing him shirtless back at the station, and now he’s expertly defused a dangerous situation with sensitivity and cunning.

We can add Annie’s lust for Shane to a list that, in season one, included an illicit affair fuelled by shame, a profound love ended tragically by death, and the delicate will-they-won’t-they of the two characters who just about stand out as our favourites from an excellent ensemble: Grace (Sian Brooke), a former social worker who insists on bringing her old job’s gentle ways into the tougher world of policing, and the more experienced, more cynical Stevie (Martin McCann). For a long time, Grace has mocked Stevie’s habit of eating delicious homemade canapes out of plastic containers in the car they ride in together – a scene in the new episode, where she snaps open her own Tupperware and offers him a treat she’s inexpertly baked for him, is an unspoken “I love you” of the kind Blue Lights does so beautifully.

By the time the credits roll, though, any Grace/Stevie shippers have been smacked around the head by a wisely observed reality check about what the pair’s relationship is really based on. In hard times, Blue Lights continues to skip deftly between light and dark.

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Source: theguardian.com