The term “cliffhanger” arose in the early part of the 20th century. It was in response to the cheap thrills derived, in serialised fiction, from ending a story with a high-stakes, unresolved image, such as, to pick a random example, someone hanging from a cliff by their fingertips. The cliffhanger has become a staple of television drama, not least in the world of British police procedurals like Trigger Point, ITV’s bomb disposal series which is returning this week for its second season. How, in our modern world, could the sight of a man hanging from a cliff compete with a pair of scissors quivering over some multicoloured wires while a timer heads, inexorably, for zero?
After the events of Trigger Point’s first season, Lana Washington (Vicky McClure) has spent six months in Estonia, training Ukrainian bomb disposal teams. But working in an active warzone is positively relaxing compared with the situation back home in London. Within minutes of Lana giving a first lecture back in the capital – “Be alert to the absence of the normal,” she tells the assembled crowd, “danger is all around” – a huge blast lights up the urban skyline. An explosion at a power plant has killed two workers and injured another, and was live-streamed online thanks to the presence of a drone. That unmanned device leads them to a car park where there are – you guessed it – loads more bombs.
It is easy to compare Trigger Point to Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty, due to the presence of McClure in the lead role (she played Kate Fleming in Line of Duty) and Mercurio as executive producer. But there is a crucial difference: Line of Duty is a conventional cop drama with an almost infinite panoply of different crimes for AC-12 to investigate, whereas Trigger Point is about EXPO (explosive police officers) and needs something to go BOOM. After the first series depicted a lone-wolf bomber engaged in a spree of attacks, how do you create the same tension without stretching audiences’ credulity?
The answer is that it’s impossible. But Daniel Brierley, the show’s creator, doesn’t seem to care. Unlike the BBC’s Vigil, which followed a nail-biting first season set on a submarine with an entirely different, and less effective, second series focused on remote warfare, Trigger Point makes no attempt to reinvent itself. “They’re everywhere,” Lana observes, in a cardboard-strewn car park. “We’re in the middle of a f***ing minefield.” And bombs are everywhere in the world of Trigger Point. They’re attached to drones, they’re wired to pressure pads, they’re secured via collars to the necks of unsuspecting victims. There are at least two bomb scares per episode (and with six episodes in this second series, that’s a lot of bomb scares). As is necessary for maintaining tension, some of these bombs will go off and some will be successfully defused. Like much in the actual production of explosive devices, it all comes down to a formula.
When you’re being manipulated so obviously, it’s easy to conclude that the show must be bad. But Trigger Point is exceptionally effective at what it does. McClure is a brilliant screen presence, born for this sort of role in the same way that Lionel Messi was born to play football, or my dog was born to unsuccessfully chase squirrels. And the serial bomber, however implausible a premise, is a fun one. The tension created by a timer and a mess of wires, the shaking of a pair of “snips”, the muffled weeping of an unsuspecting civilian: these are simple but effective ingredients. And while Lana may be protected by a degree of plot armour – the necessity of keeping McClure front and centre – the show is remorseless and unsentimental. Bombs go off and characters die, and the show keeps twisting and twisting, like a French braid.
As ever with terrestrial drama, the true villains aren’t the terrorists with their amorphous, secular ideology. “Cost of living, inequality,” an informer tells the police. “They want to sweep away the whole corrupt system.” Instead, the real baddies are the institutional black sheep, like racist EXPO John (Kris Hitchen) and greasy new commander Francis (Julian Ovenden). Because compared to the horror of a tripwire or a dead man’s switch, how can an irritating PhD student with a god complex (“I am a non-subscriber to your jurisdiction,” he says under interrogation) compete? The show is, ultimately, concerned not with why the bomb is put there, but how it’s removed.
It’s a cynical proposition, but then police procedurals usually are. With the clock always ticking on a countdown – or until the next bomb is uncovered – there is little scope for ineffectual human drama. Grief is relegated to an unwelcome by-product, and romantic ambitions are sidelined entirely. Instead, Trigger Point is wired for maximum effect. By sticking to what it does best, Trigger Point manages to blow away the competition.