Review by C.J. Bunce
British crime dramas deserve some credit as a group–and PBS Masterpiece for re-airing them. Viewers never quite know what hoops the police will jump through next, the twists and turns a series will take, and what unlikely villain will end up at the end of each whodunnit. That’s the test of all mystery series, whether you’re watching a strange villain and almost as strange cop in Luther or the tempered, well-intentioned Detective Chief Inspector Cassie Stuart and her skeptical partner Detective Sergeant Sunny Khan tracking down 40-year-old crimes in Unforgotten. With its fifth season currently in production, PBS is now streaming the first three seasons as part of its Passport membership, a chance for U.S. viewers to get caught up on the show.
In the States the six episodes of the first season are condensed into three airings (this explains the pacing of the 90-minute broadcasts). The first season sticks to one case, which begins with the discovery of the body of a black man from 1976, his bones found buried in the basement of a former hostel. Nicola Walker (Collateral, Law & Order: UK, Luther) plays DS Stuart, whose key feature is that she lacks all the quirks of the detectives in every other crime drama. She’s not an alcoholic. She’s not promiscuous. She doesn’t rough up suspects. She doesn’t have family issues. She’s not a bad cop. What she does is encourage her broad team of London police officers, and she takes her job as caretaker of the citizenry quite seriously. Even if that means exhausting the department’s low resource levels to find a murderer who has gone unnoticed for decades.
A huge cast of talent is believable in their performances. A motley group of suspects 40 years ago, looks like four ordinary senior citizens today. Familiar to genre fans are Bernard Hill (The Lord of the Rings, Valkyrie, Titanic, Gandhi, I, Claudius) as Father Graves, Trevor Eve (Waking the Dead, Shadow Chasers, Murder, She Wrote) as Sir Philip Cross, Ruth Sheen (The Woman in White, Berkeley Square) as a mentor to local boys, and Tom Courtenay (Doctor Zhivago, The Aeronauts, The Golden Compass) as a retired hostel caretaker named Eric Slater. Gemma Jones (Sense and Sensibility, Shanghai Knights, Harry Potter series) joins the cast as Mrs. Slater, and together with Courtenay the duo turns in some gut-wrenching performances–but all of the cast demonstrates exactly how to make a compelling series with an older slate of actors.
Sanjeev Bhaskar′s (Doctor Who, Arthur Christmas, Notting Hill) DS Khan takes a primarily secondary role in the first season, more of a sounding board for DCI Stuart than a sleuth in his own right (which appears to change in subsequent seasons). Brian Bovell (Coronation Street, Silent Witness) is part of another interesting thread of the story as Lizzy Wilton’s husband, and Frances Tomelty (Silent Witness, Waking the Dead, Law & Order: UK) plays the slain man’s mother.
That refreshing absence of quirkiness of the leads is also the weakness here. The plot is a bit on the dry side, closer to cold case true crime shows–which adds to the credibility of the show–but it could use some levity or action (a car chase?) now and then. Proof of that is found in DCI Stuart’s brief encounters with her father, played by Peter Egan (Chariots of Fire, Downton Abbey), especially in their last scene of season one.
We’re always on the lookout for the next great British/Irish/Scottish/UK police procedural or mystery. For 2021, Grace and Traces certainly made for more enjoyable viewing, but you can’t knock writer/creator Chris Lang′s (The Bill, Dark Heart) storytelling (which aired originally in the UK in 2015). With its well-drawn, driven woman lead cop taking charge and “getting it done,” Unforgotten is closer in vibe to The Salisbury Poisonings and Collateral than other British fare (not as exciting as the former and far better than the latter), and so the 4.5 hours may be worth it to gear up for the four seasons that lie ahead (so far).
The first three seasons of Unforgotten are now streaming via the PBS Passport, or catch seasons two and three airing in 90-minute segments continuing with the first episode of season two, as CSI Stuart and DS Khan begin to track down the killer of a body found in a suitcase after a river is dredged. Look for that Tuesday evening on PBS’s Masterpiece series. Genre fans can look forward to Humans, Doctor Who, and Shetland’s Mark Bonnar, Pirates of the Caribbean, Life on Mars, and Supernatural’s Kevin McNally, and Life on Mars, Doctor Who, and The Woman in Black’s Liz White in future seasons.