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Can Sky's new series Code 404 win TV's robot wars?

Comedies about android cops don't have a very happy history, writes Pat Stacey


Cop Roy Carver (Stephen Graham) finds his partner John Major (Daniel Mays) has been brought back to life as a cyborg in upcoming comedy series Code 404

Cop Roy Carver (Stephen Graham) finds his partner John Major (Daniel Mays) has been brought back to life as a cyborg in upcoming comedy series Code 404

Cop Roy Carver (Stephen Graham) finds his partner John Major (Daniel Mays) has been brought back to life as a cyborg in upcoming comedy series Code 404

Stephen Graham pretty much owned television in 2019. He electrified season five of Line of Duty as John Corbett, an undercover cop who may or may not have gone over to the dark side.

He gave the best male performance of the year, in the best British drama of the year, as the alcoholic Joseph, a kind, sensitive man whose repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse resurface, in Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne’s heart-rending The Virtues.

He capped off 2019 by playing the ghostly Jacob Marley in the BBC’s three-part A Christmas Carol. His performance was the only positive in that dour and joyless “reimagining” of the Dickens classic.

Graham is one of the finest actors of his generation, so seeing him partnered with that other great talent (and fellow Line of Duty alumnus) Daniel Mays — and in a half-hour comedy for a change — is something to really savour.

Code 404, which comes to Sky One and NOW TV on April 29, is a comedy cop show/sci-fi hybrid.

Graham is Roy Carver, a member of the London Met’s Special Investigations Unit and one half of its most effective duo. Mays plays the other half: a brash, reckless but brilliant hotshot who goes by the distinctly un-hotshot-like name John Major.

When an undercover sting operation goes wrong, Major is shot dead. Unbeknown to Carver, his late partner’s body is fast-tracked into a top-secret experimental AI project.

Carver is gobsmacked when Major reappears a year later, having been brought back to life as a cyborg. He looks, sounds and behaves just like the old Major. In other words, he’s still a knob.

But now, he’s a knob whose AI implants are malfunctioning. He’s clumsy, clueless, accident prone, his instincts for police work have deserted him and a large chunk of his memory has gone AWOL too.

Another terrific actor, Anna Maxwell Martin, completes a Line of Duty guest-star hat trick as Major’s shell-shocked wife.

It’s way too early to reveal more about Code 404, which is written by Daniel Peak (Horrible Histories, Not Going Out), except to say it’s a bit like The Professionals crossed with The Six Million Dollar Man — whose “we can rebuild him” sequence is spoofed in the first episode — but with delightfully daft dialogue and lots of slapstick.

It’s certainly a major upgrade (pun fully intended) on previous series featuring human-and-robot cop pairings. Admittedly, the standard of this small sub-genre isn’t exactly high.

Childish mid-70s American sitcom Holmes and Yoyo, starring Richard B Shull as hapless detective Alexander Holmes, who’s assigned a big, dumb android partner called Gregory ‘Yoyo’ Yoyonovich (John Schuck), is one of the worst series ever produced. That’s not just my opinion.

American magazine TV Guide placed it at 33 on its list of the 50 worst ever TV shows, wedged between something called Co-Ed Fever and Alexander the Great, a 1963 TV movie starring William Shatner.

Holmes and Yoyo bit the dust after 13 miserably unfunny episodes. Undaunted, in the same year (1977), the same network, ABC, quickly commissioned a different series, Future Cop, which used exactly the same premise, only this time it was more drama than comedy.

This one saw veteran street cop Joe Cleaver (Ernest Borgnine) saddled with an annoying android partner played by Michael J Shannon (not to be confused with the other Michael Shannon, who was only three years old at the time). Future Cop was equally terrible and even less successful, tanking after just seven episodes.

Amazingly, US television went back to the same well a third time — 1999’s Mann & Machine, in which the cyborg cop was a woman — and then a fourth, for 2013’s Almost Human.

Ironically, that last one was excellent, but was nonetheless cancelled after one season by Fox, the network where good series go to die. Code 404 deserves a longer lifespan.

Code 404 is on Sky 1 and NOW TV on Wednesday, April 29.