Review by C.J. Bunce
Based on the Jackson Brodie novels by Kate Atkinson, Case Histories is a fantastic BBC mystery series set in Scotland that should rank high on your list of not only the best mystery and police procedural series, it’s on the of the best TV shows of any genre. I’ve mentioned it from time to time here at borg, but it aired from 2011 to 2013 before we expanded coverage to all genres. For genre fans in the 2020s, the series is a look back to actors who telegraphed big careers ahead, including Jason Isaacs in the lead role, plus Sherlock and Humans’ Amanda Abbington, and guest stars including Shetland’s Mark Bonnar, Doctor Who returning actress Neve McIntosh, Death on the Nile’s Rose Leslie, and Lodge 49 and The Umbrella Academy’s Adam Godley. But it’s the storytelling that reels in viewers and keeps them coming back for more. It should be no surprise, as Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes creator Ashley Pharoah is one of the series’ writers. Both seasons of Case Histories are now streaming on several platforms.
Jason Isaacs’ Jackson Brodie is the ultimate put-upon, downtrodden cop/ex-cop/gumshoe. He is no mastermind like Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Gregory House, MD, or Professor T. Put him in the category of Shetland’s DI Jimmy Perez, Commissaris Piet van der Valk, DCI John Luther, or Hinterlands’ DCI Tom Mathias. Brodie is a working cop, or more accurately, ex-cop. You’d need to track down Paul Blackthorne’s Harry Dresden from The Dresden Files, or Isaacs’ own troubled detective in Awake, to find anyone similar to Isaacs’ brand of hero. His trauma originates in his sister’s drowning in his youth, an event that prompts him to be a better father to his pre-teen daughter, played by the whip-smart Millie Innes, who lives with his ex-wife in the first season. Brodie has a heart, requiring him to act on any and all injustices, including punching a stranger in the face at a park for beating his dog (Brodie rescues the dog, too, in a great “save the cat” moment).
The first season has six one-hour episodes, with three standalone 90-minute episodes in season two. The storylines are bleak in the way most British cop shows are, often leaning into putting children in jeopardy or serving in the role of the murder victim. But the dark contrast to the sympathetic characters is why these shows work. It’s also why Brodie is better in the first season than the second–some series writers think gritty cop must be paired with bent cop (in this case, that’s bent ex-cop). It’s where Luther went wrong and where Case Histories is at its weakest.
The set-up has its noir elements. Brodie was sacked by the police squad for doing something he knew was right, left to start his own private detective agency. A modern “His Girl Friday” is played by Zawe Ashton (Velvet Buzzsaw), who lines up only profitable cases for Brodie and spends most of the time butting heads with him. The will they/won’t they element for Brodie is completed by Amanda Abbington’s DC Louise Munroe–one of the only people on the force who still tolerates him, she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks and tries to form a more personal bond with Brodie, always crossing paths at the wrong time. Brodie gets in bed with underground elements, resulting in him doing a kidnapping he thinks is a rescue, but he neglects to sever ties when he can.
One of the best relationships, in five of the nine episodes, finds Brodie falling for a client, Natasha Little (Thirteen, Star Wars: The Old Republic) as Julia Land. Oftentimes this character would be a femme fatale, but here we have two women right for the story’s hero, both Louise and Julia.
Expect more action than most other British TV mysteries, excepting perhaps Luther, as well as mysteries viewers can actually collect enough facts to solve along with the hero.
Guest actors add to the fun. In addition to Mark Bonnar, Neve McIntosh, Rose, Leslie, and Adam Godley, watch for Gwyneth Keyworth (Hinterland, Black Mirror), Fenella Woolgar (Doctor Who), Phil Davis (Doctor Who, Ashes to Ashes, Alien3), Tom Goodman-Hill (Mr. Selfridge, Humans), Dawn Steele (Monarch of the Glen), Aisling Loftus (Mr. Selfridge), Morven Christie (The Bay), and James Cosmo (Braveheart, His Dark Materials, Shetland, The Chronicle of Narnia).
Case Histories has a plain title, but it’s a unique series and one of the BBC’s best. Stream it now on Peacock, Tubi, Pluto, and Amazon Prime via Freevie.