There’s a sense that, when developing Innocent, writers Chris Lang and Matt Arlidge hadn’t quite worked out who the real murderer was when they began. They had a premise, yes – David Collins (Lee Ingleby) released on a technicality after serving seven years in jail for the murder of his wife – and with it the subsequent broad strokes of the character drama to juxtapose alongside the criminal investigation. But they didn’t, it would seem, have a solution.
Of course, there’s an argument to be made that Innocent didn’t quite make enough of that premise anyway, despite all the potential it offered. Indeed, where the drama is at its best is when it leaves the procedural aspect to the background; David Collins trying to insert himself back into his old life is the most engaging idea in Innocent, elevated largely by Lee Ingleby’s anguished sincerity in the role. It’s his interactions with his children, his old friends, and his late wife’s family that provide the emotional core of the series, and that is where the drama is most successful. It would’ve been nice to see more time devoted to these elements; there’s moments where Innocent broadens its approach to these ideas, gesturing towards the way the press would treat Collins after his release for example, but for the most part its focus remains bounded.
Instead, rather than dwell more deeply on character drama, Innocent balances it with a more pedestrian crime story. There’s a point at which this line of criticism is little more than condemning Innocent for being one show in lieu of another, though that’s not entirely the point; much as Innocent could have done more with its character drama, so too could it have been more inventive in terms of its procedural aspect. The story focuses on a seven-year-old cold case, but it’s treated, as one character notes, “like the crime happened yesterday” – meaning there’s nothing to make the investigative elements distinct from any other crime programme. Surely the challenges and obstacles presented by the cold case should have prompted the writers to try something a little more inventive with Innocent? With such a potentially engaging perspective on a procedural we’ve seen before, it’s a shame that Innocent made the more familiar choice.
Yet the above is, perhaps, predisposing this piece too negatively too early. After all, even despite the relatively unexamined approach Innocent took with its procedural aspect, it still managed to be generally entertaining; as already noted, Lee Ingleby does impressive work with the script, as does Hermione Norris as Alice Moffat, Collins’ sister-in-law who adopted his children after he was sent to prison. While the majority of its run plays things safe, it’s not unreasonable to argue that Innocent was still an entertaining piece of television.
Until, that is, the fourth episode.
As already noted in the beginning of this article, there’s a sense that writers Chris Lang and Matt Arlidge hadn’t quite worked how they wanted their story to end while they were developing it. That’s unfair, of course; more likely is that they did know how they wanted the story to end, but simply did such a poor job of reaching that point it felt entirely unearned.
Increasingly, in certain crime dramas, there’s an emphasis on shock and surprise first and foremost when it comes to eventually revealing the murderer. It’s debatable how effective this is; certainly, there’s a strong argument to be made that revealing the murderer shouldn’t be surprising at all, but rather the moment when everything becomes suddenly very obvious, satisfying because it makes sense in hindsight. Innocent is very much in the former camp – with little set up or efforts to establish the possibility in prior episodes, the final part of the series hinges on the revelation that David’s brother Phil actually murdered his wife, mainly out of jealousy. To say it doesn’t quite jive with what we’ve seen so far is an understatement; Innocent had established, up to this point, that Phil had spent the last seven years campaigning to have David released from prison, at the expense of his marriage and home. It’s not that the two facts are mutually exclusive, exactly, but Innocent makes very little effort to join the ideas together.
It’s the sort of thing that rarely wins audience support; there’s little doubt, certainly, that the majority of the Innocent twitter hashtag once the episode ends will be complaints to that effect. Prioritizing the surprise over fidelity to and consistency with steps taken to reach the reveal dull the emotional impact of the moment; if the emotional impact doesn’t ring true, it doesn’t matter how shocking it’s meant to be. Shock is cheap – genuine engagement requires something more.
Ultimately this is what stops Innocent from quite working. While it was never exactly perfect, the first three episodes were at least entertaining; that the final episode couldn’t quite tie it all together means the series is never really able to function as a coherent whole.
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