Black Ops review: Police sitcom is charming enough, but it lacks bite
Some TV shows have such deliciously punny titles that you wonder which came first: the name or the premise. The IT Crowd, for example, or Transparent. And BBC One’s latest half-hour sitcom is no different. Dom (Gbemisola Ikumelo) and Kay (Hammed Animashaun) are inexperienced and ambivalent Black British PCSOs (the tier below the actual police; “the s*** police”, in the show’s words) recruited to an unauthorised undercover mission within a notorious drug gang. This is the set-up of Black Ops, an unruly new comedy about low-level players marooned in a secret operation.
Historians of the 1990s and of covert military practices will take pleasure in the excellently named DS Clinton Blair (Ariyon Bakare), progenitor of this confidential programme, described by Dom as a “budget Idris”. Responding to the perceived racism of his superiors – they consistently provide him with white officers for undercover missions on Black estates – Blair recruits confident but insubordinate Dom and her buffoonish pal Kay (“about as much use as a chocolate teapot!”) for the infiltration. “This all seems like a lot of trouble to go to for a few drug arrests on an estate,” Dom observes, shrewdly, but she accepts all the same. A short montage later, Dom and Kay are lurking on the corner of a London estate, trying to sell heroin to passing addicts. They are joined through the series by actors including co-creator Akemnji Ndifornyen (as menacing drug lord Tevin), and British TV regulars such as Joanna Scanlan, Felicity Montagu, and Zoë Wanamaker.
We are living through a moment when terrestrial TV throws up a lot of serviceable sitcoms – the recently cancelled The Witchfinder, for example, and Starstruck, and Here We Go – but few smash hits, and Black Ops is unlikely to change that. For all that it’s a welcome change from the predominance of white middle-class voices, the end product is hardly subversive. There’s the customary scene where a sweep through a house almost reveals two people hiding in the shower, only for the doorbell to go just as the curtain is about to be pulled back, and a gag about using a dead person’s fingerprint ID to unlock a phone (the third time I’ve seen this joke on screen in the past couple of years). “This is some Line of Duty s***!” proclaims Dom, and while some of the cliché is satirical, some of it just feels lazy.
But there’s also plenty of sweetness. Ikumelo is already a star after her turn in Abbi Jacobson’s Amazon series A League of Their Own, and casting herself in the lead role here (she’s a co-creator) is a good move. The fraternal chemistry she shares with partner Kay will keep viewers entertained (it owes something, I suspect, to the central buddy cop pairings of Hot Fuzz and Rush Hour) even when the plot wheels start spinning. The comedy, too – which is written with the demographics of a BBC One audience in mind – is more effective when juxtaposing the worlds of law enforcement and drug peddling with a pedestrian vision of bourgeois London. “Three cheers for Britain’s wetlands!” hurrahs Kay, after the duo have been kidnapped and dumped on the Walthamstow marshes.
With plenty of charm and charisma, the only reason Black Ops doesn’t feel like a sure-fire hit is the absence of belly laughs. The comedy ends up somewhere between the slapstick of The Wrong Mans and the dialogue-driven farce of Nightingales. For a show whose premise is predicated on systemic racism, police corruption and drug-fuelled murder, it lacks a bit of bite. And despite a clever title, which conjures images of brutal hitjobs and nerve-jangling interrogations, Black Ops always plays it safe. With a darker streak, it might’ve better lived up to its name.