Criminal, Netflix's latest crime drama, is the kind of show you'll either hate or love. The series is a pared-down entry into the genre, with each episode taking place entirely in a police interrogation room and the two corridors that lead to it. This (almost) bottle episode format means that Criminal doesn't care about heightening tension through wild chase scenes or visceral, gory crimes. Criminal works its magic entirely through dialogue, and if you're the kind of person who loves watching an intense battle of wits and will (think: 12 Angry Men but you know, with women and people of color) this show will be a must-watch for you.
For those who are convinced Criminal will drag along too slowly to catch their interest, showrunners George Kay (Killing Eve) and Jim Field Smith (The Wrong Mans) use their play-like format to upend the genre in another interesting way. The 12 episodes in Season 1 are actually divided into four separate shows, set in four different countries with four different teams of detectives (but all episodes are shot on the same set). In each volume (which are titled individually on Netflix as Criminal: United Kingdom, Criminal: Germany, Criminal: Spain, and Criminal: France), there are three episodes, each starring a different suspect and played by outstanding actors like David Tennant and Hayley Atwell. While the cases themselves are strictly contained within each episode, over the course of the three in each volume, Kay and Smith give the audience tantalizing glimpses into what drives the detectives who are trying to enact justice.
Three episodes to each volume means the show is incredibly digestible, heavily narrative, and extremely good at trimming the fat that you'd normally expect from a Netflix crime offering. Giving Criminal a shot is a low stakes investment with high emotional rewards. The most taxing thing for audiences will undoubtedly be, where to begin?
Unsurprisingly, Germany is the best trio of the whole show. The three cases Criminal: Germanytackles dig into the psychological scars that still to this day divide East and West Germans, the incredibly easy ways immigrants in European countries are taken advantage of, and a riveting cold case that exposes cruel and unusual punishment by a generation of police who were trained in the Cold War. Each suspect draws you in, and Germany is the volume that makes one truth very clear: Justice can and will be adjusted to suit the needs of whoever is in power — but that doesn't mean the truth isn't worth discovering.
The bittersweet disappointment of learning the real truth, and still not being able to do anything useful with it isn't the only thing that sets the Germany volume apart. It's also the trio in which the detectives — even with extremely limited time outside of the interrogation room — connect most with the audience. A surprising evolution in a working relationship makes Germany the one volume I hope to see more episodes of.
France is another extremely contemporary volume, with the first episode investigating the events of the 2015 Paris bombing at the Bataclan. The extremely riveting episode deals not with finding the bombers, but with investigating how social media was used to manipulate the aftermath. Out of all the episodes of Criminal, "Emilie" is the one that every viewer will be able to see themselves in. The other two cases are more traditional: a powerful CEO is questioned about a murdered union boss, and a sales manager is questioned about a violent hate crime.
But where France really sings, is in the through line of the detectives. Much like Germany, the French team has a complicated working relationship, only this time with an untested leader who needs to prove herself before her team can fully trust her with cases. When she finally steps into the interrogation room — or in this case, the ring — her explosive performance makes wading through the more predictable cases well worth your time.
Criminal: United Kingdom
Most English speakers will understandably want to start with United Kingdom, as it's the only volume not subtitled. And it's easy to see the attraction with Doctor Who (David Tennant) and Marvel (Hayley Atwell) alums getting top billing. But perhaps because of the fact that there's so many crime dramas to compare this English trio to (Broadchurch, The Fall, Collateral, Retribution, Marcella, Happy Valley), the cases feel expected, and you'll likely be able to anticipate the turns.
Tennant plays a step-father accused of murdering his step-daughter; Atwell is a woman who's murdered her sister's husband; and the final case involves human trafficking (featuring the incredible Youssef Kerkour). The actors do a lot with cases that feel overly familiar, but between the suspects' predictability and the weak emotional connection between the actors playing the British detectives, United Kingdom falls to the middle of the pack.
Spain is unfortunately the most middling volume of Criminal. Which isn't to say that it's bad, it's a perfectly serviceable set of one-act morality plays. The first case involves a twist on the black widow stereotype; the second, a mercy killing; and the third, a mobster who is responsible for the death of a detective's family member. Like the UK episodes, there's not quite enough of a push and pull between the suspects and the detectives to ratchet the dramatic stakes higher. In addition, the through line of the detectives is a romantic subplot and betrayal that would need a few more episodes for the audience to really care about. Spain serves as a soothing chaser to the more riveting volumes of Criminal — a three-episode buffer between you and your endless search for more crime dramas to add to your Netflix queue.
TV Guide rating: 3.5/5 stars.
Criminal is now available to stream on Netflix.