British crime dramas — at least the ones that arrive on these shores — tend to have certain things in common. Their cops are allowed to be more rumpled and abrasive, their locations are usually far from glamorous, and they typically favor ambiguity and atmosphere over aspirational qualities. “Prey” shares many traits with quality offerings like “Happy Valley,” “The Fall” and the first season of “Broadchurch” without quite reaching those dramas’ heights. The new show is most successful when it sticks to supplying propulsive twists and turns in its two main stories, both of which concern middle-class men caught up in unexpected nightmares. Attempts to flesh out core characters’ personal lives don’t have time to achieve real traction or depth, but “Prey’s” solid cast and propulsive energy are enough to power it through most of its rough spots.
One of the main attractions of U.K. programs are their abbreviated seasons, and “Prey’s” is shorter than most, with a six-episode season divided into two three-episode arcs, and only one major character seen in all six installments. The quickest way to describe the two arcs is to say that the first half is a riff on “The Fugitive” and the last three episodes may appeal to fans of the Liam Neeson franchise “Taken.” One overworked police officer, Susan Reinhardt (Rosie Cavaliero), investigates both cases.
As Marcus Farrow, John Simm is the effective star of the first half of “Prey’s” season; when a tragedy strikes, Marcus has to clear his name, and given that he’s a police officer, he has more luck avoiding law enforcement than most civilians would. Simm’s quiet intensity is a perfect match for the role, even if aspects of “Prey” meant to establish Marcus’ personal life feel a bit rushed. Still, the actor gets quite a few chances to show how adeptly he can shift from moments of interior pain and confusion to eruptions of violence and grief.
The most effective aspect of “Prey” is the way in which the cat-and-mouse game between the police and the men they are hunting is depicted. “Prey’s” documentary shooting style evokes the Michael Chiklis series “The Shield,” as do the hardscrabble streets of Manchester, where the drama is set, and the narrative percolate with the kind of immediacy that establishes hardy and enjoyable momentum. As was the case with “Happy Valley,” it can occasionally be difficult for Americans to understand what these taciturn Northern Brits are talking about, especially when they mumble. That said, most viewers will be able to follow the drama despite the accent barrier, given that “Prey” is most often action based.
The show offers a reunion of sorts of the cast of “Life on Mars,” a great U.K. crime drama that starred Simm and Philip Glenister (and which was re-made by ABC with unfortunate results). The two actors don’t share the screen in “Prey,” but the latter takes over as the lead character in the season’s last three episodes.
As in the first storyline, the second does a fine job of conveying the growing terror of an ordinary man caught up in a nightmare scenario that springs out of nowhere. Glenister’s character, a prison guard, is ensnared in an escape bid that spins out of control, and the actor’s charisma is so potent that it almost makes up for the fact that this somewhat repetitive story of characters on the run could have been substantially shorter.
“Prey,” like many crime dramas from Europe (and some made in the U.S.), manages to combine a grim outlook with a dynamic energy, and like the great “Happy Valley,” it ruminates effectively on the idea that tenacity can be a double-edged sword. Reinhardt is unstoppable but not inflexible; she’s willing to admit when she’s made mistakes, and her perseverance in the face of the wrath and frustration of her superiors is admirable.
Where the show falls notably short is in trying to depict Reinhardt’s life outside of her job, making the attempt in half-baked fits and starts that never really cohere or engender deeper investment in the character. It’s the drama’s biggest flaw, and it’s a shame that aspect of the show never comes together, despite Cavaliero’s committed and game performance. One gets the sense that “Prey” wants to follow in the footsteps of the Helen Mirren vehicle “Prime Suspect,” a U.K. crime classic, but the writing here would have to be more complex and challenging for the homage to work.
Still, for fans hunting for rough-around-the-edges crime drama that’s both dour and moderately addictive, “Prey” may fill the bill.