The Streaming Experience: British Crime Dramas on Netflix
As I try to patiently ride out my days through the second wave of the Pandemic in London, Ontario, I dream of the day that I will be able to see live theatre, as well as to travel once again to foreign unknown lands and take in the grandeur of their landscapes and vistas. But most of all, I miss the exploration, and the excitement of taking in all the beauty that exists in those unseen wonders of the world. It seems so far away, remaining a distant fancy, this idle landlocked wanderlust, but I have discovered an escape, a remedy for it all, although it seems to be a bit bloody and murderous. That feeling exists, streaming in on my flatscreen via Netflix in the guise of the British equivalent of C.S.I.. I’ve never really watched one of those American shows, but I got hooked a month or two ago by the show, “Broadchurch”, that most excitedly, lead to “Hinterland“. And with those journeys coming to an end, the tonic now is “Shetland“. Inside these television shows, I am making my way around the United Kingdom, watching these small town detectives solve murders and crime at, somewhat, an alarming rate. Who knew so much violence went on along these beautiful country roads of England, but I must say that I am caught, just as neatly and firmly as those murderous souls that find themselves at the center of these investigatory cases, and I must admit I am truly grateful for this bloody Netflix gift.
I will admit, quite clearly, that I tend to only watch one (or maybe two) streaming shows at a time, never more. I start at the beginning, and just watch, usually, one episode a night at a time. I don’t really binge (although I will say that I did uncontrollably watch numerous episodes of “Dead To Me“ each night, ending the season in one weekend. A very unusual feat for me, and I couldn’t get enough). But generally, I like the hooks and the drive of each episode, especially in these procedural crime shows, pulling us along to a conclusion, either per episode (s) or per season. I like hanging on to the edge of those white cliffs for a bit, just as the show’s team wanted us to; desirous for more, but patient to wait until tomorrow night to discover what happens next. I want to start streaming “The Crown” (season four became available today), as well as “The Queen’s Gambit“, but they can wait. I’ve got a number of “Shetland” episodes to finish before I dig into either of those majestic and delicious treats. Furthermore, “Killing Eve” is waiting patiently in the wings as well as a few other crime series of the same voyeuristic nature. But all in good time, a wise man once said, all in good time.
It was “Broadchurch”, the very clever and emotional British police procedural television series that was broadcasted on ITV for three seasons between 2013 and 2017, that first got me going. Created by writer and executive producer, Chris Chibnall, the show crafted itself beautifully on the shores of a fictional English town in Dorset (my buddy tells me that a lot of it was shot close to where he lives in Weymouth). With gorgeously dangerous white cliffs rising up majestically and sharply from the beach town, the series focuses on the energy and drama between police detective DI Alec Hardy, dynamically portrayed by the compelling David Tennant (“Doctor Who“) and the homegrown DS Ellie Miller, most artfully portrayed by the magnificent Olivia Colman (“The Crown“; ‘The Favourite‘). The first moments find ourselves looking over those very imposing cliffs down to the sea in the dark of night, with blood dripping and tension electrifying the night air. Something terrible is about to happen to this person, but we aren’t given much to cling to. It’s not until the morning that the body of local 11-year-old Danny Latimer is discovered, knocking the town to its knees, especially DS Miller who knows the family of the boy. Suspicion and media attention fly about, landing tightly on his grieving father, his family, and various townsfolk. It’s tender, yet sharp, literally within seconds of each other, finding energy in the pairing of the two detectives who don’t actually get along all that well from the get go. DI Hardy isn’t easy to like. He has some pretty heavy out-of-town big city demons that he drags along with him as he makes Broadchurch his new home, colliding forcibly with Colman’s tender portrayal of the very likable local DS Miller who thought, for a brief moment, that Hardy’s job was going to be her’s once she returned back to duty. Sadly that wasn’t going to be the case, but luckily for us, she finds herself working alongside the brittle DI Hardy as they dig down deep into the compellingly difficult case, finding respect and a unique form of engagement that keeps us all tuned in so intently.
The series is sprinkled with fine nuanced performances, particularly within the young Danny’s family. The ensemble cast, including Jodie Whittaker (“Venus“); Andrew Buchan (‘All the Money in the World‘); Charlotte Beaumont (‘Jupiter Ascending‘); as well as Carolyn Pickles as the strong minded newspaper editor, Maggie Radcliffe; Arthur Darvill as the eager Rev. Paul Coates; Adam Wilson as the young determined reporter, Tom Miller; and Matthew Gravelle as the DS’s husband, Joe Miller, find connection and subtlety at every turn, as they wrestle with the death of the young boy, and the fervor that surrounds the town and the investigation. The clear first-season focus is on finding out what happened that fateful dark night, with peering eyes most particularly aimed at Danny’s family; his mother, Beth (Whittaker); his father, Mark (Buchan); and his teenage sister, Chloe (Beaumont). Media attention plays a secondary role, rocking the small village with accusations and twitter releases that send the case off down blind alleys into desperate dead-ends, with the townsfolk veering off into dangerous troubling pathways that don’t do the town proud. It’s tense and spot-on in its structure and alignment, finding grace and engagement in the snappy dialogue and dark twists and turns that are concise and powerful, all with those glorious white cliffs looking down over this smart procedural drama.
The second season continues on, in a turn of the screw that I never saw coming. It stays with the first storyline, something I wasn’t expecting, while also digging itself into a case from the past that DI Hardy had packed away in his carry-on case. I was taken aback and surprised by this artful direction, thinking that after the first season following this one particular case to a satisfying conclusion, we’d be off on something murderously new and exciting, but the continuation and the movement forward while also, looking back is equally satisfying and thoroughly emotional. It’s filled to the rim with talent, particularly the indispensable Charlotte Rampling (’45 Years’) as Jocelyn Knight; the intense Marianne Jean-Baptiste (‘Secrets and Lies‘) as opponent Sharon Bishop, alongside the delicious Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”) as her assistant Abby Thompson. The writing is as sharp as these actors, finding a drive that kept me tuned in with every turn of that surprising screw.
The third and final season finds its way back to the central construct, the one crime per season construct, while also never really abandoning the intense family dynamics of the Latimer family as they try to move on from Danny’s first-episode death. It’s heartbreakingly done, while gently and determinately focusing the two detectives’ eyes elsewhere, on the rape of a local woman at a festive grand birthday party. The woman at the center of the sexual attack resonates intensely, finding deep and upsetting energy and engagement within all the dark levels of trauma. Bravely embodied by the award-winning Julie Hesmondhaigh (“Coronation Street”), her portrayal and the writing bring authenticity to the challenging topic of rape and the rape culture that engulf the town. It’s a fitting and devastating end to the series, pulling us most tightly into the leads’ emotional tension with society and one another, as well as the problematic avenues of sexual assault, and the gender divide that polarizes our culture. The details that this last season of “Broadchurch” present, particularly that first episode of the third season, are delicately transcribed, and unflinchingly harrowing as we watch with our heart in our hands as they gather clinical evidence for the rape kit and report. It’s honest, unhurried, and straightforward, while also being completely emotionally connected yet never fetishizing the event in any way. The purity of the recreation is crushingly relevant and disturbing, shining its light on the subject matter with intelligence and a force that is born solely from its brilliantly devised plot and structure. The trilogy finds closure in both realms, the old trauma and the new, entwined and heightened by one another most delicately. The heart lies in its healing, and “Broadchurch” delivers a conclusion to the trilogy that bring honor and a sense of ease that leaves me wanting more and more, but feeling full to the brim.
Alas, there is no more “Broadchurch” to consume, at least for now, so rightly Netflix lead me to the powerful “Hinterland”, another British crime series that surprisingly uses a very similar formula, but with its own unique twist and a much darker, more disturbing underbelly. Also called “Y Gwyll”, which is Welsh for ‘The Dusk’, the police detective drama, which was original broadcast in the Welsh language on S4C, follows another slightly damaged big city detective, DSI Tom Mathias, played beautifully by the very appealing Richard Harrington (“The Crown”), who is quickly paired with a homegrown detective, DI Mared Rhys, dynamically portrayed by the subtle but powerful Mali Harries (“The Indian Doctor”). It is both tense and caring, finding the right edge of misogyny to play the game well with. Their dynamic bonding is as intricate and well crafted as each episode of this moody series. Mainly filmed in Aberystwyth and the surrounding county of Ceredigion on the west coast of Wales, each episode follows one particular case to its conclusion, with a dirty underbelly of deceit and manipulations in its central nervous system. We can’t help but feel the insidious dark treachery ride up and down the spine, as it seeps its way into all the cracks and crevices within. We watch, glued to the psychological twists as the tense knot is unraveled with clarity and expertise. Here is the key to why these shows dig in so deeply. It’s the trauma that is infused, not just within the crime and the victims, but reverberating in the souls of the ones trying to understand it. It is in the fact that it is happening within their own small community that fills their complex hearts with pain and connection, pushing them forward, not just for the sake of the law, but for the sake of their faith in humanity.
Remarkably, the show and each scene were filmed not once, but twice, in both Welsh and English, with the English-language version being aired on BBC One Wales. That impressive detail adds an air of authenticity that seeps into every aspect of the structure. The cast is magnificently steadfast and compelling at every deliciously detailed turn, with strong performances delivered by the talented Alex Harries (“The Sheffield Affair”) as Detective Constable Lloyd Elis; a complex Hannah Daniel (‘Black Mountain Poets’) as Detective Sergeant Siân Owen; and the compelling Aneirin Hughes (“EastEnders”) as the formidable Chief Superintendent Brian Prosser. The show pulls us in with a psychological outsider ease, centering itself around DCI Mathias’s troubled traumatic past that is kept delicately dangled before us, ensconced in a photograph tacked by his bedside. Running hard and fast from his London past, the show never gives too much of an explanation for his isolating and destructive ways, but when partnered with the intense and determined DI Rhys, a woman who has her own set of issues, the engagement finds force in its complications, grabbing hold of our collective heart and mind as tightly as one could hope for. Each gripping mystery bridges the Devil’s gap between the singular and the every overarching theme, delving and falling deep into the chasm between the innate care of a child and the horrors of neglect and abuse that can find its way in. The energy of deceitful shame and danger radiates and vibrates in the air and falls deep into the darkness and mud. It sneaks most assuredly into every moment, caking itself under their skin and nails, whether they are complicit or not. “Hinterland” is a truly emotionally satisfying framework the encompasses the whole from beginning to end, making the three season engagement with the detectives exceptional, gripping, with a conclusion that is thoroughly complete and riveting.
The formula for these two shows seem to works, and the similarities are obvious: the out of town troubled male detective, partnered with the homegrown female detective. It brings honesty and integrity to the mix, as well as a strong jolt of electricity in their disconnect. They don’t really get on well with one another, even as the shows barrels forward, but the ties that bind tighten with each emotional twist of the historic knife, feeding on the tense psychological trauma from before and finding a foundation and salvation that, although (and thankfully) never feels like a Hollywood ending, connects and enlightens. “Shetland”, the third series of my personal British crime drama invasion, is somewhat cut from the same cloth, although the details are as unique as the stunningly beautiful locale. (My god, I need to travel there, or anywhere, to be honest, one day soon.)
“Shetland” is a Scottish crime drama drenched in a wanderlust atmosphere and oceanic mist, made by ITV Studios for BBC One. Initially based upon the novels of Ann Cleeves and brought to the screen by David Kane, the principal writer of the series, “Shetland” follows DI Jimmy Pérez, played brilliantly by the engaging Douglas Henshall (“Angels and Insects“; National Theatre’s The Coast of Utopia), a strong minded detective who returns to the islands of Shetland, an eponymous Scottish archipelago north of Scotland, to find life with his teenage daughter after the death of his loving wife. His police department partner, the young and fascinatingly clever Detective Sergeant Alison “Tosh” Macintosh, devilishly well played by Alison O’Donnell (‘Holby City‘), along with Detective Constable Sandy Wilson, delicately portrayed by Steven Robertson (“Vera“), unpack and investigate criminal activity in the small sparsely populated Shetland islands over two episode arcs. The setup sounds familiar, and it is, but the resulting drama has as strong a character as the other two shows, without feeling overshadowed of bested by either.
There is a tenderness and beauty in the production, and although mostly filmed on the Scottish Mainland, the crime series has a dynamic that feels as authentically unique from the crowded genre, as “Hinterland” does from “Broadchurch”. The cast is equally impressive, with Mark Bonnar, Lewis Howden, Erin Armstrong, Julie Graham, and Anne Kidd filling out the space on the islands dynamically as principal characters that ebb and flow with the tides. There are numerous finely tuned episodic performances of note, particularly with the always enticing Bill Paterson (“Fleabag“) as the island-bound father of DI Pérez, and also, the amazing Brian Cox (“Adaptation“; “Red“) as the recluse Magnus Bain. It is in the empathetic connection between Henshall’s detective and Cox’s intricate Bain, that the heart and soul of this drama are held strongly in an engaging warm glow that radiates out across the breathtaking vistas of the show’s namesake islands.
Henshall won the 2016 BAFTA Scotland award for best actor for his turn as the complex mournful detective, searing his passion and his paternal care into every frame of the engaging series that also, most deservedly received the same award for Best TV Drama. I have yet to make my way through all of the episodes, as I just started season 2 last night. And low and behold, the structure has seemingly shifted from a two-episodic storyline, to a longer ongoing seasonal investigation, or so it appears as I look into the waters of season two/episode three. Luckily for us all, it seems more are on the way. BBC One announced on December 2, 2019 that two more seasons would be airing respectively in 2020 and 2021, with Henshall confirmed to return in his detective role, along with the indispensable O’Donnell. I have no idea how the pandemic has played with this intention, but I can tell you, as I get closer and closer to the end of this delicately crafted series, I will most definitely tune in to continue my tour of the Shetland Islands. It’s like a wanderlust gift to their captivated (and captured) audience, with suspense, mystery, and intrigue attached at every stop on its UK tour. If I’m going to be kept trapped in the couch riding out the pandemic in Canada, I might as well see some of the world as I do it, safely from my living room. With no need of a mask. Thanks Netflix, I appreciate the travel visa. But what is my next stop after “Shetland”? Maybe a trip to Iceland, via “The Valhalla Murders“. This eight-episode police procedural might just do the trick. I’ll let you know.