Netflix's 'Collateral' is compelling and fully-formed, despite its short episode count [Review]

If American TV shows have a tendency to overstay their welcome, one could just as easily make the argument that a lot of British shows have the opposite problem. As access to programming on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean has become easier in the last decade or so, American TV has made a concerted effort to mimic the British model of serialized storytelling. What was once a 25 or 26 episode standard for a broadcast season has whittled down to, at most, 21 episodes a season, and occasionally even as small as six or eight, a welcome reprieve with so much out there to watch. Yet, in an attempt to maybe avoid homogenization or possibly overcompensation, or even in the most British of protests, my exposure to TV in the UK seems to suggest that the pendulum often swings way too far in the other direction over there. The Carey Mulligan miniseries Collateral is a shining example of this.

Written by David Hare (“The Hours” and “The Reader”) and directed entirely by S.J. Clarkson (“Jessica Jones”, “Life on Mars”), Collateral recently made its way to Netflix after airing on BBC Two earlier this year, and it’s a fascinating peek into the current state of sociopolitical affairs in the U.K. Through the guise of an investigation into the seemingly random murder of a pizza delivery man on the streets of London, the show tackles an abundance of issues and current events, including, of course, crime and policing, but also immigration and racism with the influx of refugees from the Middle East, politics through the lens of the opposition party and their policies, and even gender politics and sexual abuse in the British military. If you’re a North American viewer with little knowledge of what’s happening in the U.K., Collateral does a pretty good job of spelling a lot of it out in an easily consumable way, as David Hare delivers a stern but ultimately fair tongue lashing of where his country has wound up in this post-Brexit reality.

The show’s premise and much of its plot is little more than a platform on which Hare dares to stand to make his opinions on the current sociopolitical state of the U.K., but it still manages to remain intriguing over the course of the show’s four hour-long episodes. That seemingly random shooting victim turns out to be a Middle Eastern refugee caught up in the drug trade, and both witnesses and suspects have much to hide, as inspector Kip Glaspie (Carrie Mulligan) and her team try to unravel the plot. The show expands from there, following not only Glaspie and her fellow detectives, but also some of the witnesses and the people around them, most notably David Mars (John Simm), an opposition MP who takes it upon himself to use the shooting as a platform to make a political statement after his ex-wife Karen (Billie Piper) becomes involved. There’s also an army captain (Jeany Spark) suffering from PTSD after returning from her tour in Iraq and unwanted advances from a superior officer, a reverend (Nicola Walker) with ties to both Mars and a key witness who also happens to be an illegal immigrant, the victim’s sister (Ahd Kamel), who has many secrets and holds the keys to the investigation, and the manager of the pizzeria (Hayley Squires), who mysteriously changes the delivery order at the top of the show. The plot even follows the murderer themselves after an early reveal, showing us there’s more than meets the eye in this story.

In that vein, the murder is little more than a premise, a soapbox on which David Hare stands to promote his true feelings on the current state of affairs in the U.K., and he minces absolutely no words in making his opinions clear. It’s a fascinating, noble and compelling effort, and it leaves you wanting more.

A lot more, in fact. Returning to my original thought for a moment, Collateral seemingly goes out of its way to avoid outstaying its welcome, to a degree that’s noticeable and somewhat disappoint. Its best strength may be that the world it exists in immediately feels fully-formed and lived-in. It feels real, and you want to experience more of it. All of its characters are three-dimensional and it feels as if Hare thought of every little detail, every possible nuance. But it also feels as if a lot of those details were left off the table in order for the story to fit neatly into four 58 minute episodes, when it seems it could have easily been six or even eight without suffering, Maybe that’s a flaw on my part, too used to American shows that are overlong and stuffed with filler, but between the four episodes of a jam-packed crime drama and, I don’t know, a Netflix superhero show that in no universe should have been greenlit with 13-episode seasons, I feel as if there’s a difference to be split.

I don’t want to harp on this point too long because the show is otherwise brilliant. It has a lot to say not only about British politics, about what the leaders of the world should be doing to protect people who are less privileged than those of us who happen to live in fully developed countries, and even about how the governments of those countries treat their own citizens. It toes a fine line in presenting the psyche of both sides, from the idealistic pedestals of the detectives and the noble politicians, to the murky complexities suffering soldiers, illegal immigrants and refugees, even seemingly innocent bystanders.

And the list goes on. Collateral shows us a story mainly through two main characters who are idealistic and inherently good, even if they have their flaws, operating in a world where few others share that same idealism, as most of the rest have been subjected to the inherent badness of the world. It gives us a simple, easy to swallow premise but unless a treasure trove of issues and moralistic posturing that’s delightful to sit through. Its world is complex, it exists in shades of gray and it constantly leaves you wanting more. It should come as no surprise that the show has invited comparisons to The Wire. It’s just a shame that we’ll probably never get to see it bloom into something as big as that HBO drama, thanks to those aforementioned episode count standards across the pond.

Gripes about runtime aside, I truly loved the time I spent in the world of Collateral, the story and themes are great, the acting and characters are phenomenal, and it’s the rare show that not only feels fully-formed and lived-in, but leaves you wanting a lot more. David Hare’s miniseries gets 9 former pole vaulters out of 10.