‘Line of Duty’ Season 6: New Characters, More Corruption and ‘Invisible’ COVID

Line of Duty Season 6
Steffan Hill

Live TV viewership numbers may be down, but in the United Kingdom, Line of Duty was appointment TV this spring. When the electrifying police drama’s sixth-season finale aired in May, it became the most-watched, non-soap drama episode over there in 20 years, attracting 12.8 million viewers and a whopping 56.2 percent of the TV audience for the BBC.

The show’s creator and writer, Jed Mercurio, has hit ratings highs before. An episode of his edge-of-your-seat thriller Bodyguard (which aired on Netflix in the U.S. and earned Mercurio an Emmy nomination) drew 10.4 million viewers in the U.K. in 2018.

Although Line of Duty hasn’t exploded with the same velocity in this country, past seasons have become a bingeable pleasure on numerous streaming sites (Prime Video, Hulu, Acorn, BritBox), and beginning Tuesday, May 18, BritBox will release Season 6 in weekly installments.

The seven new episodes are set 18 months after the anti-corruption detectives of AC-12 uncovered yet another senior police official engaged in criminal activity at the end of Season 5. Despite that success, one core member of the team, Detective Inspector Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), has left, and morale is low at the unit, which hasn’t recovered from allegations of misconduct against department head Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar).

DI Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) and DCI Joanne Davidson (Kelly Macdonald) (Photographer: Steffan Hill)

“It’s very hard for them to shake it off,” explains Mercurio in an April Zoom interview. “Particularly if you’ve got a character like Hastings who doesn’t kowtow to authority. That’s earned him some enemies. Kate feels that anti-corruption has become tainted and she needs to move on.”

Now she’s working murder with Detective Chief Inspector Joanne Davidson, played by this season’s guest star, Emmy-winning Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald. But Jo may not be thoroughly investigating a journalist’s murder. That prompts Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), Kate’s former anti-corruption colleague, to come a-calling.

Jo’s motives, however, don’t seem as clear-cut as those of some of AC-12’s previous adversaries. According to Mercurio, that’s by design. “We built much more mystery around Kelly Macdonald’s character than we ever have for [an antagonist],” he says, adding that he felt Macdonald has “a sympathetic quality which would add to the enigmatic features of the character.”

And AC-12 is still in pursuit of that elusive fourth corrupt senior police officer — part of the quartet known as “H” — who’s been colluding with organized crime. Making their job even tougher than it already is: Top police brass in the unnamed English city where Line of Duty is set want to keep a lid on any institutional corruption.

DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) (Photographer: Steffan Hill)

As the show’s sole writer, Mercurio, a former doctor, has strewn together elaborate plots, intriguing characters, and pulse-pounding action sequences over 36 episodes. But as the seasons build upon each other, audience expectation increases, and fans aren’t shy about sharing their feelings on social media. Does that make it easier or harder to write Line of Duty now?

“I think any showrunner will tell you there are pros and cons,” Mercurio reflects. “Obviously you’re in a very fortunate and privileged position, because if you’re six seasons in, you’re working on a hit, and that helps. The other thing is, the world is well-established. You have almost an encyclopedia of relationships and settings that you can turn to if you need a new development.

“But yes, audience expectation rises season on season,” he adds. “The last few seasons we’ve had explosive opening episodes, particularly towards the end. We felt it was really hard to do that again in a way the audience would find surprising, so we set up a first episode that was more mystery.”

For a while, the biggest mystery facing Line of Duty was when the cast and crew would be able to finish this round. Production was halted in March 2020 after four weeks of filming. But even though Season 6 is set in 2020, there’s no mention of COVID. “We couldn’t really afford to go back and reshoot,” Mercurio says. “We had to make the pandemic invisible within the show.”

Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) – (Photographer: Steffan Hill)

It wasn’t invisible on set, however. When filming resumed in Northern Ireland later in the year, some scenes were moved outside or to bigger locations for better ventilation and social distancing. Even the show’s famous interrogations were affected. “When we had actors interviewing each other across a table,” Mercurio says, “the tables were bigger than in previous seasons, so they were further apart.”

Whether this season of Line of Duty will catch fire in the U.S. remains to be seen, but the show has been finding an audience in the States. Mercurio was jazzed when Henry Winkler tweeted his admiration for the show. “That’s a great moment for someone who grew up watching Happy Days and idolizing Henry Winkler,” he says. “And the fact is, as we do more seasons, it feels like American viewers are more likely to invest in the show because they know that investment’s going to be rewarded with lots of episodes.”

Does that mean there’s a seventh season on the horizon? “We’re just kind of circling it at the moment,” Mercurio says. “It’s really about where the characters go next. I need to have a think about who the guest lead will be and then have a conversation with any of the regular cast who are fortunate enough to have survived Season 6.”

Line of Duty, Season 6 Premiere, Tuesday, May 18, BritBox