American TV is not big on ethics or morality. While that surely says something about the industry itself, I think it also says something about the culture and us. I have been trying to figure that something out lately since the return of the British police drama “Line of Duty” and its leading character Superintendent Ted Hastings for a sixth season in the U.S. on the BritBox streaming service.
The series focuses on a police anti-corruption unit known as AC-12 within a fictional Central Police Force. The core cast is Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) and investigators Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) and Detective Constable Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure). Each season features a guest star and one major investigation of corrupt cops. The guest star playing a police officer is usually suspected and investigated for corruption. This season, the role belongs to Kelly Macdonald, a standout in films and TV series ranging from “Trainspotting” to “Gosford Park” and “Boardwalk Empire.” While much of the praise for the series often goes to the guest stars, it is the Superintendent Hastings character who makes “Line of Duty” must-stream for me.
Hastings has come to embody something very rare on television these days: a character who seems deeply committed to ethical behavior to the point where he or she becomes a moral center around which the universe of the series revolves. That might not seem so remarkable given that he is the head of an anti-corruption unit. But with Hastings, it appears to go far deeper than his job. He seems disgusted by crooked members of the force, or “bent coppers” as they are known in the language of the series. And he seems obsessed with rooting them out and punishing them.
He’s been described as old school in part for his rigid sense of morality, as well as his use of old-fashioned colloquial phrases, like, “now we’re sucking diesel,” or “now we’re cooking with gas,” to signal his team is making progress on an investigation. But old school doesn’t do him justice. He’s more like Old Testament in his sense of moral certitude and crime and punishment for dirty cops.
“We do our duty to the letter of the law. The letter!” he has said on more than one occasion. “None of my people would plant evidence. They know I would throw the book at them. Followed by the bookshelf.”
Creator and executive producer Jed Mercurio clearly gets the appeal of Hastings as a moral center and plays to and with it. The trailer for Season 6 ends with Hastings looking into the camera and saying with a tone of disapproval, “When did we stop caring about honesty and integrity?”
The tagline for the season: “Lies cost lives.”
In the second episode, Hastings is chastised by his supervisor for not appreciating that at his senior level of management his job is as much about “politics as it is policing.” It’s a warning, and Hastings instantly lets his boss know he’s not going to play politics.
“I’m interested in one thing and one thing only, and that’s bent coppers,” he replies righteously.
He later denounces his supervisor as a “bare-faced liar appointed to our highest office.”
Typical of the show’s complexity, viewers have been teased with a story line suggesting that Hastings might turn out to be the most bent copper of all. (If true, we will hear the howl from British viewers who love Hastings clear across the Atlantic.)
Talk of lies from our highest office made me think back to “The West Wing,” the Aaron Sorkin series that ran on NBC from 1999 to 2006 about the administration of President Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. Bartlet was the last great moral character on American TV that I could think of, and we’re talking 15 years since that series ended. I mean moral in a highly conscious, self-reflexive sense that involved the character teaching and preaching a gospel of moral thinking and righteousness as a regular part of the series.
In Season 2, Episode 19, Bartlet warns a young aide not to lie on his behalf if he is subpoenaed to testify about him.
“I’m confident in your loyalty to me. I’m confident in your love for me,” Bartlet says. “If you lie to protect me, if you lie just once, if you lie just a little, if you lie ‘cause you can’t stand what’s happening to me and the people making it happen, if you ever, ever lie, you’re finished with me. You understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Charlie Young (Dulé Hill), the aide, says.
“Say you understand,” Bartley insists.
“I understand, sir.”
That’s the way Sorkin used Bartlet to preach morality in that series.
Or how about these words from Bartlet to his aide, Leo McGarry (John Spencer), in Season 3, Episode 10?
“I was wrong. I was. I was just — I was wrong! Come on, we know that. Lots of times, we don’t know what right or wrong is, but lots of times we do and come on, this is one. I may not have had sinister intent at the outset. But there were plenty of opportunities for me to make it right. No one in government takes responsibility for anything anymore. We fluster, we obfuscate, rationalize. Everybody does it, that’s what we say. So we come to occupy a moral safe house where everyone’s to blame so no one’s guilty. I’m to blame. I was wrong.”
I know Bartlet is a fictional ideal, but still wouldn’t it be nice to hear a real politician say something even slightly tinged with such moral rectitude?
The only leading character on TV today who clearly articulates a sense of moral reasoning and responsibility in the choices she makes is Queen Latifah’s Robyn McCall in “The Equalizer” on CBS.
In previewing the pilot, I wrote about a scene in which a wealthy criminal she had cornered offered her money to let him go.
“You people,” she says contemptuously. “You think you can buy and sell the whole world. You think your life is more valuable than anybody else’s.”
Everybody has a price, he says.
“Not me,” she replies.
It is made clear in the series that she left the C.I.A. because she was at odds with peoples’ lives sometimes being sacrificed for political reasons by the agency. And her decision to use her many skills to become a freelance helper of people who feel ignored or desperately abandoned by the system is certainly a core moral life choice.
I would like to believe that one of the reasons the series is the biggest ratings hit of the network year is at least in part connected to McCall’s sense of morality. I am cheered by that, and hope producers of other shows will try to imitate it. But the talent of Latifah, the show’s powerful action sequences, its depictions of empowered women and the way it speaks to the anger many feel about the system ignoring them are surely factors for its success as well.
And then, there’s the stark social reality that we elected a president in 2016 who is a serial liar. And though Donald Trump was defeated in 2020, more than 74 million Americans still voted for him despite four years of media outlets like CNN and The Washington Post documenting his lies. Half of all Republicans still believe his biggest lie, that he won the 2020 election but it was stolen from him, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.
Maybe the reason that the landscape of American TV is so devoid of highly moral characters like Hastings these days is because too many of us have lost or chosen to ignore our moral compasses, especially when it comes to truth and lies. I hope that is not true, but I fear it is especially among our elected leaders.
Here’s hoping for more characters like Hastings, Bartlet and McCall based on the knowledge that television can shape our values and behavior as well as simply reflect them.
The first four episodes of Season 6 of “Line of Duty” can be streamed on BritBox with new episodes added weekly on Tuesdays.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter:@davidzurawik.