AV Club: ‘Crime and Justice Lagos’ tackles societal ills through the police & legal procedure
Starring Folu Storms and Jammal Ibrahim as lead detectives
Starring Folu Storms and Jammal Ibrahim as lead detectives
Showmax is building a formidable catalogue of original African film and TV content. Currently, the Multichoice-owned streamer is better known for airing reality shows, including its live-streaming of the ubiquitous Big Brother Naija, its constant stream of episodes in the Real Housewives franchise from Durban to Lagos, and minor hits like I Am Laycon and GH Queens. Encompassing all of that, though, is an obvious dedication to telling African stories, with dozens of commissioned and renewed TV series mainly from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa, over the past few years.
A recent sign of Showmax’s commitment is the first season of ‘Crime and Justice Lagos’, which serves as a new instalment in a promising franchise. In 2021, the streamer premiered the debut season of ‘Crime and Justice’, a police procedural drama set in Kenya where two detectives—Makena (Sarah Hassan) and Silas (Alfred Munyua)—investigate cases with grave crimes at their centre. The show, which returned for a second season last year, took inspiration from real life happenings, giving it a lived-in premise and a strong base to explore these stories from a human angle.
‘Crime and Justice Lagos’, released across six weeks from last December, follows the same ethos, and even retains some of its predecessor’s traits, especially in its casting of two lead detectives, Kelechi (Folu Storms) and Danladi (Jammal Ibrahim). With an already set template, the show doesn’t have to justify the reason for its existence, but it does have to navigate its relation to a city—and country—where crime is regular but neither investigation nor justice is a consistent occurrence.
In October 2020, millions of Nigerian youth and concerned citizens marched onto highways and streets across the country, in protest against police brutality, particularly against the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit of the Nigerian police force. The protests, which came to a brutal halt after soldiers of the Nigerian Army and officers of the police shot at and killed unarmed protesters at the Lekki Tollgate, is referenced in “Clash,” the fourth episode of ‘Crime & Justice Lagos’. In that episode, four young adults are killed by three policemen and, in uncovering the situation, what follows is a portrayal of the machinations that are usually at play when the men in black are on the wrongful end of a crime.
“Clash” is easily one of the best episodes of ‘Crime and Justice Lagos’, a very Nigerian event that gets treated with the level of care and tenacity that seldom happens in real life. That tension between what most Nigerians know happens regularly versus what is shown on screen makes for a gripping hour of screen time. Adding to that, Kelechi and Danladi belong to the Serious and Special Crimes Unit (SSCU), which is meant to be an antithesis to the real life SARS unit. As the detectives jump through hoops to expose the events that led to those deaths, the bureaucratic hurdles they have to jump through are a reflection of a police force where commissioners tell police brutality victims’ loved ones to “leave it for God.”
“The truth? When did the police start caring about the truth?” one of the errant policers remarked while being interrogated. Unlike that biting, real life assertion, the fictional SSCU cares about finding the truth and ensuring justice. Deviating from the perception of a Nigerian police force that has neither the means nor the will to solve crime, the SSCU has the persons and tools to conduct investigations, from an autopsy lab headed by a competent Dr. Aggey (Uche Mac-auley) to the tech wizard Simi (Maggie Osuome), who is mainly in the show to “make your lives easier while you guys take the credit.”
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Led by a straight-cut unit leader, DCP Biboye (William Benson), there’s no established pattern to the cases investigated by the SSCU. That gives the show a flexibility in how to approach each case, while giving viewers insight into each character on an episode by episode basis. The issue with that, though, is we really never know the founding motivation for the unit. Serious and Special is a broad basis for a unit, and it shows in how the focus of episodes from kidnapping to organ harvesting, but as a cumulative body of work, these cases come across as arbitrary selections from higher powers we aren’t privy to, and that undefined quality seeps into the reading of the whole show.
As leads, Folu Storms and Jammal Ibrahim do a great job of showing up as passionate detectives in the Nigerian police force, but their performances are also welded to the show’s limitations. For one, halfway through ‘Crime and Justice Lagos’, it seems like the writers haven’t figured out whether Kelechi and Danladi are cordial colleagues or workers who’ve become friends. Part of that is because there’s no establishment of the timeline of the SSCU’s formation and their working relationship. On the OG ‘Crime and Justice’, viewers get to know that Makena and Silas are new partners within the opening scenes of the first episodes, and we get to watch their evolution into colleagues who greatly trust each other.
On “Sliced,” the second episode, the detectives take interest in the case of a missing girl child against the wishes of Biboye, up to the point of risking their salaries. As the plot unfolds, it becomes a commentary on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a pressing social issue in Nigeria. It’s in this episode that we’re allowed into Kelechi’s life a little more, but because she’s mainly defined by man troubles, expectations from a rigid father and trauma from a child-related event that doesn’t eventually get revealed, Folu Storms has to wear a perpetual scowl. Part of that is fitting for a character in a male-dominated field, especially as she deals with blatant misogyny on several occasions, but it unfairly gives Kelechi a single dimension.
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Danladi gets slightly more grace because the character gets a little more interest later in the show. On “Harvesters,” the penultimate episode, the case of young boy who has his kidney removed through an illicit system is put in conversation with Danladi’s backstory as a street beggar when he was much younger. It’s not exactly what you would describe as truly special, but Jammal Ibrahim’s performance is moving enough to keep a rather pedantic episode afloat.
Even though most of it is focused on the investigation of these cases, ‘Crime and Justice Lagos’ features some legal procedure, with the final arch of five out of six episodes taking place in the courtroom. At its best, these parts of the show find the balance between final expositions and resolutions—regardless of whether the arraigned are convicted or not. At their worst, it’s a lot of explanation that tells the viewer what happened when they could’ve been shown as the investigation developed.
In “Oro,” the court scene is captivating because it shows the generally baffling nature of ritual killings, in relation to how the law deals with culture. It’s capped by the best revelations on the show. By contrast, first episode “Zero” loses the bulk of its momentum by walking around evidence in circles and leaving uncertainties with its resolution. In these up and down parts, as with a lot of the show, an undeniable positive is how well-defined the aesthetic is.
Taking cues from its predecessor, the colours on ‘Crime and Justice Lagos’ are eye-holding without being loud. Even when swinging between the upscale SSCU headquarters and grittier, rustic locations, there’s a steadiness that makes it easy for scenes to absorb viewers. In a way, it reminds me of the American crime drama show, ‘The Blacklist’, a show with some speculative influences on ‘Crime and Justice Lagos’—both shows are centred around units with lead detectives whose character matrix have some similarities.
Beyond its Kenyan predecessor and my speculations, there aren’t a lot of forerunning police procedural dramas in Nigerian television. When I asked for examples, an older journalist friend pointed me to ‘Third Eye’, a show from the late ‘80s starring the iconic Olu Jacobs, and the mid to late ‘90s Ghanaian sitcom ‘Inspector Bediako’ which was quite popular in Nigeria during its heyday. (‘Inspector Bediako’ got a fairly recent 52-episode reboot that’s currently streaming on Showmax.)
Being part of a franchise, ‘Crime and Justice Lagos’ has a template but this first season comes off across as a show still figuring out its strengths. That much is clear in its finale, “Deadnappers,” which is based on an unnecessarily muddled plot. Personally, I think the second season of ‘Crime and Justice’ was better than its first. I’m betting on the second season of ‘Crime and Justice Lagos’ following that same trend. There’s no shortage of crimes to portray on the small screen, and much like the system of justice in Nigeria, there’s always room for improvements.