Many of the things I wanted to say about Red Riding have already been written elsewhere, namely at Sit Down Man (on the socio-political history behind the stories) and kpunk (on the thoroughly un-British use of dark allegory in place of traditional character development). I agree with a lot of the comments regarding inconsistencies of plot and the overripe cathartic ending too. Perhaps the only thing left to add might be something about the programme's superlative use of location and architecture.
Red Riding looked fantastic. This sounds at first a banal observation, but such visual complexity is extremely rare in British TV and film making. In fact a lot of the criticism of the series seemed to hinge around a suspicion of this richness, as if it were proof of deficiencies elsewhere. There is a bias towards words over pictures in our logocentric culture, a preference for the supposed clarity of language over the ambiguities of images.
Red Riding had a specifically visual intelligence. It's imagery was compelling from the recurring symbolism to passing period details. This was more than Life on Mars with better lighting. It wasn't simply that the police were benter, the sexism more pathological or the corruption more endemic. It was also to do with the way imagery was used to offer genuine insights about the way our culture may have changed over the period the series was set.
In an early scene in the opening episode (1974) two characters wandered through a Brutalist multi-storey car park. It looked terrifying but also beautiful, suggestive perhaps of some civic quality lacking in the corruption elsewhere. The cars within it though seemed from another era, creaky British Leyland vehicles emblematic of the industrial decline of 1970's Britain.
The locations were consistently intriguing throughout. In 1974 the camera returned again and again to the thoroughly ordinary row of terraces where Paula Garland lived. The slow, almost walking speed, panning shot along their facades had an English Noir quality, conjuring something deeply if disturbingly erotic out of the banal setting.
Similarly John Dawson's house was perfect, a vulgar piece of 1970's suburban modernism. Its bloated mediocrity was entirely appropriate to Dawson's character. This was shown to best effect in the scene where Dawson hosted a cocktail party where corrupt police cheifs in tuxedos and their wives wandered around its shag pile carpeted hallways and mirrored bedrooms in a queasy simulation of the high life. This could easily have ended up looking like something from Abigail's Party but the atmosphere was palpably unpleasant and threatening.
Best of all was the Indian restaurant where Dawson was shot. The faux-Indian arches and decorative screens disappearing in a haze of cigarette smoke were stickily familiar. These shots had the tense social observation of David Hockney, or Patrick Caulfield's paintings of 1970's interiors, but with a sense of dread instead replacing the archness.
Red Riding explored whole genres of neglected, under-described space; the vast expanse of the moors through which a succession of doomed characters drove, the edge of town wasteland full of allotments sheds and rusting vans to which the story returned again and again. As the plot inched forward the changes in cars and clothes became the only marker that time was passing at all. Otherwise nothing seemed to change. There was no forward momentum, just a seemingly endless return past the giant concrete cooling towers on the way back to the dank cul-de-sacs of Fitzwilliam.
So for me the best episode was 1974. It was the most visually ambitious and impressive if also the most narratively ludicrous. While 1980 was more coherent, 1974 ignored the conventions of good storytelling in favour of a bracingly strange David Lynchian exploration of English provincial life. Perhaps in some senses the story was too conventional, unhappily mixing the police procedural with something more polemical. The corruption demanded some kind of clear resolution and justice, where perhaps there should have been none. Despite its occult murkiness the plot never quite achieved the hypnotic depth of the imagery.