By Wendy Knowlton
28 March 2022
Watching The Responder is an immediately gripping but totally draining experience. Martin Freeman is superb as Chris Carson, a policeman who tells his therapist he’s about to crack, and then heads out on night shifts pitted with crises that shake his fracture lines. Liverpool is a montage of burnt-out cars, revenge-fuelled dealers, petty disputes and kids sucked into corruption and hopelessness. A fox bounds across a road, just another predator, momentarily caught in a light flare before disappearing into the shadows.
Written by ex-policeman Tony Schumacher, this five-part series is an uncomfortable window into the underworld most would like to deny. This alone would be enough to justify Chris’s mental deterioration, although an abusive past, a dying mother and his own eroded morality exacerbate an already volatile situation. “I want to be a good bobby… do good things,” Chris says, but he fears being sucked into the darkness that surrounds him and worries that his own inner demons are barely contained. Petty criminal Marco (Josh Finan) dreams of owning a house where he could have his daughter to stay but finds the concept of a family actually living together unfamiliar and unfathomable. “Baghead” Casey (Emily Fairn) lifts a fortune in cocaine from a violent dealer and seems incapable of choosing self-preservation over potential profit. Chris’s nightly endeavours seem pointless as these lost teens resist his efforts to save them. He’s struggling to retain faith in his ability to make a difference.
Freeman’s performance is raw and nuanced. He swings from fatherly, to frustrated, to callous, and makes the audience believe every mood. Rachel, a rule-abiding rookie, views him with scorn, and those on the street label him “rude… a loon… mad.” But he resists easy labelling. His desire to do good competes with his ties and obligations to drug dealer Carl (Ian Hart). His moments of frustrated violence signal a growing desperation about a world in which no one takes responsibility or appears capable of change. His wife, Kate, tells him, “you’re disappearing,” and points out he won’t take her hand, or let her “pull [him] back.” Equally impressive is Fairn as Casey, a complex mixture of brash street-smarts, unquenchable opportunism and vulnerability. Hart embodies similar contradictions in the menacing Carl. He won’t let his daughter watch violent TV because there’s too much killing, but then heads out into the night, ready to wreak revenge on Casey.
At the end of the first episode, Chris visits his dying mother, who sits at the window of her nursing home, bathed in light. The contrast to the darkness of the preceding hours offers brief respite as Chris smiles, convinced that, for once, he has done “a good thing” by plucking Casey from the path of vengeance and buying her a train ticket out of town. Of course, he’s wrong. Casey has her own agenda. And if Carl is right that Chris has a “saviour complex” where she is concerned, the challenge of choosing redemption rather than slipping into the darkness remains.
The Responder is rated MA15+ for language, violence and drug use. It can be seen on SBS, Wednesdays AT 9.35pm, or on SBS On Demand.