All episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
BBC America often functions as a catch-all for any and all British series seeking U.S. distribution, but that’s rarely as apparent as it is with the arrival of Prey, a wholly derivative but solidly delivered slice of serialized storytelling that’s not a six-part thriller so much as two three-part seasons jammed together for broadcast purposes.
Without any additional series on order, it appears that the six episodes unspooling over the next few weeks are all audiences will get of Prey, from writer-creator Chris Lunt, which makes its stateside landing feel less like a premiere and more like a burn-off. But even if that’s the case, there’s enough here for fans of copper comfort-food to temporarily warm themselves with.
Bleak and blinkered by design, Prey puts a slight spin on the cat-and-mouse chases familiar to viewers of Luther and Broadchurch, pitting a dogged DS (Rosie Cavaliero) against two different quarries, both officers of the law forced to go on the lam for reasons more complicated than said DS is initially led to believe. Cue a flurry of breakneck pursuits, heated questionings, hairpin twists, and perpetually harangued Brits treating paper coffee cups like shot glasses at a bachelorette party.
The first and better half focuses on the plight of Detective Constable Marcus Farrow (John Simm), who walks into his ex-wife’s kitchen to find her stabbed to death on the floor. Overcome with grief, Farrow is too shocked to immediately phone it in, which leads his colleagues, chiefly Detective Sergeant Susan Reinhardt (Cavaliero), to suspect him of the crime, even after a heart-wrenching interrogation session in which she rather cruelly drops the bombshell that his youngest son was also found dead in the house.
Knowing full well how bad it looks, Farrow takes advantage of a car accident to escape custody and vows to figure out why two of his loved ones were targeted, even with Reinhardt nipping at his heels.
Prey revels in its grieving protagonist’s confusion and even mirrors it visually, utilizing jittery camerawork and a series of discombobulating flashbacks that further muddle the events unfolding on screen. There’s a MacGuffiny floppy disk in play that relates to a conspiracy involving a cold case and some corrupt cops, but those plot elements feel far less essential to Prey than its go-for-broke pacing and grim realism.
Early on, as audiences know about as much as Farrow, that mood-first approach is like a pail of cold water to the face. So many cop dramas are so focused on marching the cops through their cases that they forget to make them feel like real characters, and that’s one department in which Prey excels. These people pant, sweat, bleed, scowl, and glower. They’re weird, awkward, out of shape, slow-witted, and authentically self-absorbed; these flaws do what the central case can’t and give Prey some real stakes.
Any dramatic heft hails from the performances, particularly those of Simm, Cavaliero, and Anastasia Hille (as a deeply conflicted and compromised copper). Farrow’s interrogation-room breakdown is the single most harrowing sequence in the whole show (including both runs), a shattering moment of heartbreak that’s allowed to linger, and Simm carries it off with such masterfully controlled pain and pathos that even casual watchers will find themselves riveted.
Cavaliero, meanwhile, leans into Reinhardt’s provincial quirks, from her inability to work the precinct’s vending machine to her flustered barking of orders, and does a fine job of constructing a likable, homely heroine – albeit one with troubling habits, like stalking her ex-husband and his new family. Coming in the midst of a TV season inundated with American super-cops (like Jennifer Lopez on NBC’s godawful Shades of Blue and Robert Kazinsky on Fox’s irredeemable Second Chance), Reinhardt’s mundaneness and occasional misery feel strangely mesmerizing.
Farrow’s plot arc winds down after three episodes in a mess of revelations and repercussions, with too many exposition dumps almost spoiling the mood (Simm’s performance just about keeping things grounded). Reinhardt’s the only one to carry over to the second series, with gone-rogue prison guard David Murdoch (Philip Glenister) serving as her new quarry. Having handcuffed himself to a duplicitous prisoner (MyAnna Buring) to prevent her crazed brother from harming his heavily pregnant daughter, Murdoch is another good guy in an impossible situation he has no idea how to extricate himself from.
That thematic common thread makes the second series a very similar watch to the first, with momentum taking precedence over narrative clarity at every turn. Glenister and Buring turn out to be a dramatically fertile pairing, though their characters are both undercut by the twists their flight from justice undergoes, too many of which hinge on lucky coincidence.
The series doesn’t pick up many new tricks, and though the action sequences remain visceral and urgent, Reinhardt’s sleuthing doesn’t amount to much. Prey is at its least inventive when it comes to actual police work – there’s no shortage of CCTV footage to help her along, and the number of high-octane chases end up straining credibility.
But in spite of that, Prey is decently made, well-acted, and shameless enough in pilfering from The Fugitive and every other British police procedural to just about get away with it. The series also offers a markedly different sort of top cop in Cavaliero’s Reinhardt, and it should be commended for doing so. For all the breathless cat-and-mouse skirmishes on display, what’s most exciting about Prey is how it maintains its focus on honest, authentic characters in a genre that too often checks its humanity at the door.
Two decent games of cat-and-mouse dominate the runtime, but Prey's performances and personalities are the only departments in which it truly soars.