So you’ve watched “Broadchurch”, and you’re thinking, “I kinda like those crazy-good Brit cop shows. Wish I knew which of the million out there in stream-land to watch!” Well, fear not. Avoidant/lazy person that I am, I’ve seen almost every episode of every one of them. They ARE better than their American counterparts, because they write terrific scripts about heinous crimes in full season arcs for brilliant actors to perform. They’re shot beautifully, taking full advantage of their surroundings – surroundings which always have something to do with the story. The actors look like real people, not models. The outcomes, with some exceptions, always come as a surprise. And, most enjoyably for a score-fiend like me, they know that theme songs should have a melody (perhaps none better than “Foyle’s War”)!
So let me dispense with the obvious choices right away…those I’ve either reviewed previously or are already in the mainstream. You really do need to watch the aforementioned “Broadchurch” if you haven’t already (Netflix/PBS). All you really need to know is it features David Tennant, Olivia Colman and the Cliffs of Dover in three seasons of tremendous character examination and creepy storylines. And there’s the Swedish “Bron/Broen” (Hulu), remade in to a terrible show here as “The Bridge” (to confuse things further, on Hulu they refer to the better Swedish version as “The Bridge”, so when you search for it, use “bridge”. Whatever it’s called, “Bron” is even creepier and features a lead detective whose on-the-spectrum-borne lack of social skills makes for fantastically uncomfortable (and often very funny) situations. And finally, there’s the first season of “Fortitude” (Amazon Prime), which, while certainly not as good as the previous two, stars Stanley Tucci. While all three seasons of “Broadchurch” and “Bron” are riveting, you can, and should, skip Season 2 of “Fortitude”, a season in which they, quite resolutely, jumped the polar bear. And a shout-out to the single season of “River” (Netflix), starring Stellan Skarsgard and Nicola Walker. A terrific watch.
But then the landscape gets murky, so alphabetically, here are ten shows (six British, two Scottish, one Welsh and one from Finland) which are all excellent options:
This subtitled Finnish series is notable for two things, the incredibly odd performance of Ville Virtanen as Det. Kari Sorjonen. A modern-day Sherlock Holmes with what appears to be a perpetual migraine (but is, in fact his sleuthing process), “Bordertown” is notably different in it’s presentation of the lead’s family. It is united, loving and supportive. No divorce, alcoholism, dead children or mental illness. Which doesn’t mean it’s not without real issues within the family unit, but more like “Friday night Lights” than “Elementary”. And the arc, which sometimes loses a little in the translation (and some of the subtitles are laughably incorrect), keeps you invested until the very end with some surprises along the way. Not the best of the bunch but a very worthwhile foreign language companion to “Bron” and another well-known goodie, the original Swedish version of “Wallander”.
(Theme song rating: 1 out of 5)
“Bordertown” Netflix trailer
“Chasing Shadows” (Acorn.tv)
The “Bron” template is visible in the British “Chasing Shadows” also features a lead character that has no social skills and is painfully inappropriate as a result. But, whereas “Bron’s” Det. Saga has a well-documented excuse for her behavior, Reece Shearsmith’s DS Stone’s anti-social behavior stems from a brilliant mind and no time to suffer fools gladly. The two 90-minute miniseries that make up the entirety of the show’s content are perfect if you like your procedurals short and to the point, a la “Sherlock” or “Luther”. My main complaint is that the show isn’t really of it’s location. While every other show is as much about the cities they take place in as they are about the plots surrounding them, “Shadows” takes place in…I couldn’t tell you where. If I were British, I’m sure I’d know, but I’m not. And occasionally, it lacks the drive of most of the other shows. While it may be the weakest of this bunch, it’s a quick and interesting few hours…and still miles ahead of most American major network offerings.
(Theme song rating: 3 out of 5)
DCI Banks (Hulu)
Probably, along with “Endeavour”, the most popular of the bunch, “DCI Banks” is a terrific watch. It’s a little over-dramatic at times…which mostly comes down to the man himself, played by the mostly terrific Stephen Tompkinson. He loves himself some yelling, but for the most part you feel his personal connection to solving the heinous crimes he’s responsible for (and they are truly heinous). Andrea Lowe balances out his emotions well, and the presence of longtime “Doc Martin” vet, Caroline Catz, and terrific character actor, Jack Deam, make this a no-brainer. But, let’s not forget location! Most of the violent bits seem to occur on sweeping plains or moors – which adds a sense of dread more often seen on film. The first three seasons are based on Peter Robinson’s crime novels if you read such things…but, for me, it gets even better in Season’s four and five when it ventures in to much more personal territory. The five seasons consist of a total of 32 episodes, or sixteen 90-minute mini-films. Piece of cake, and very well made.
(Theme song rating 5 out of 5)
“DCI Banks” Season 3 Trailer
“Endeavour” (Amazon Prime – Season 5 coming soon on PBS)
“Endeavour” is the origin-story, companion series to “Inspector Morse”. However, for me, it’s a better watch than “Morse”. Shaun Evans is terrific…and very odd, but lovably so…as our eponymous character, Endeavour Morse. And longtime British character actor, Roger Allam, is his equal as DCI Thursday. But there are three other reasons why I so highly recommend it. First, it sticks to its period religiously and, with dutiful production values paid for by ITV, it looks as good as it plays. Secondly, the opening credits of each episode are brilliant…expertly weaving the several players involved in the caper before the show even begins. And, finally, the mysteries are much less horrific than most of the rest of these shows…which is either a good thing or not depending on how you like your crime dramas. I appreciated it. If I do have a criticism it’s that, in Seasons 3 and 4, the show became a little too self-aware, a little too proud of its style.But this past season fixed all that (a season that will soon air on PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery”). Since you have a couple months to catch up, it’s WELL worth it. Oh! The women on the show are fantastic, especially Thursday’s daughter played by Sara Vickers, and the smarter -than-the-men WPC Shirley Trewlove, expertly performed by Dakota Blue Richards. Yeah, I’m very fond of the show.
(Theme song rating 4 out of 5)
“Endeavour” Season 5 Trailer
“Happy Valley” (Netflix)
“Happy Valley” is a bit of a treasure. It revolves around the life of one Sgt. Catherine Cawood, played with bluster, honest emotion and serious comic chops by Sarah Lancashire. “Valley” feels less like a crime drama than cop slice-of-life, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less thrilling than the others. Lancashire’s honesty and three-dimensional work keep this thing rolling – while also making up for some of the more thinly written characters. I’d go as far as to say that hers is my favorite individual performance of all ten shows listed here. The crimes, while violent, are more personal…like those that would actually happen in a large town…not the “Crime of the Century” that seems to happen with regularity on the other (“Crime of the Hour”?). It’s on Netflix and has a total of twelve episodes, with a new season slated for 2019. If you have a day or two in your pajamas, or there’s a blizzard in late April, you could do far worse than to visit this “Valley.”
(Theme song rating 3 out of 5)
“Happy Valley” BBC Season 1 Trailer
So, “Hinterland” is/was a really interesting experiment. Pitched as a Welsh show to be performed in its native Welsh language, BBC Wales decided to give it the go ahead only if it also released a version performed in English. That’s right…there are two identical versions of this show in each language. Which means twice the work for the actors and crew…and since almost all the murders on the show revolve around the death of children, that could not have been much fun. And yet, for us viewers, it’s a damned interesting show, if a little fetishistic and, at times, downright depressing. BUT, the cast is great, and even if it sometimes resembles a Nine Inch Nails video, it’s one of the best photographed shows of the bunch. And the plots are complex enough to keep you in it until the end. The bulk of the work falls on the shoulders of the perpetual forlorn-faced Richard Harrington’s DCI Thomas Mathias. “MI-5” fans will remember him as Jo’s photojournalist boyfriend in season three, but more germane, he’s very, very good in this show, although you might feel as though we’re losing something in the translation from time to time. There are twelve total episodes over three seasons (all on Netflix) and they do get better and better as they figure out how to handle the double duty of double shooting with less stumbling. Just know, this is the darkest of the bunch, so maybe don’t watch when the kiddies are around.
(Theme song rating 4 out of 5)
“Hinterland” BBC Season 1 Trailer
“The Loch” (aka “Loch Ness”) (Acorn.tv)
This six-episode mini-series, is easily one of the prettiest, taking place, as it does, in the Highlands of Scotland. However, it is one of the least satisfying of the bunch (even if it is miles ahead of most American crime drama). That comes down to it being absurdly unbelievable, at least in terms of plot (not quite as absurd as season two of “Top of the Lake”, but not far off, either). But I include it because of the photography, the acting, and the manner with which the creators consistently throw you off the scent. The show manages to confound until the end. Also, the police force seems to be populated almost solely by strong female characters – and eyeballs should reward such decisions in my book. Wait until you’re home sick for a few days, take advantage of the free seven-day trial of Acorn.tv, and watch this (and the following show…) and then cancel before you’re charged.
(Theme song rating 2 out of 5)
“The Loch” Acorn Trailer
“No Offence” (Acorn.tv)
It’s not the best crime drama, but “No Offence” is EASILY the most enjoyable of these character driven cop shows. Less personal than “Happy Valley”, “No Offence” is, nonetheless a terrific, funny, and exciting precinct-based bit of entertainment. Chronicling the efforts and interactions of three female detectives (one of whom is the chief) and how they must regularly navigate through the patriarchal nature of police precincts, while still being very invested in the crimes they are solving, left me wishing for a third season immediately upon completion (supposedly it’s on the way at the end of 2018). Possessing the most biting dialogue, Joanna Scanlon, Elaine Cassidy, Alxandra Roach and Saira Choudhry are the stars…and the reason to watch. Oh…and BRILLIANT veteran character actor, Paul Ritter. Another Acorn.tv exclusive, this is a show to be savored, even if it’s far less promoted than most of the others!
(Theme song rating 4 out of 5)
“No Offence” Channel 4 Season 1 Trailer
Very Scottish (including some characters with accents thick enough that you may want to keep your finger on the subtitle toggle button) and unbelievably gorgeous, “Shetland” is a show to watch on as big a screen as possible. For the uninitiated, the Shetland Islands are an archipelago lovated over 100 miles north of the Scottish mainland, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea. They are the stuff of legend, so beautiful that it almost hurts, and have a population just south of 25,000, most of whom live in the city of Lerwick. Which is why it’s a credit to the writers and cast that the stories seems so utterly believable and real. Not surprisingly, it is the least sensational, and most slow moving of the bunch. But here, slow moving is not a negative. It matches the environment as it’s so remote, it limits the ability of suspects to easily escape, and, as a result, it gives the sleuths more room to breathe. Of course, having the TERRIFIC Douglas Henshall as our hero doesn’t hurt either. And Alison O’Donnell, as his associate, DS McIntosh, is heart-breaking, and so human she’ll feel like a long-time friend by the end of season one. It’s one of my favorite shows in any genre. Netflix has the first three season available (14 episodes in all). The fourth season (which was fantastic) just aired in the UK and should make its way to Netflix in the very near future.
(Theme song rating 5 out of 5)
“Shetland” BBC Season 1 Trailer
“The Unforgotten” (PBS “Masterpiece Mystery”/iTunes/Amazon Streaming For Purchase)
The U.K.”s MUCH better version of “Cold Case”, “The Unforgotten” features the brilliant Nicola Walker as CDI Cassie Stuart, whose division works on cold cases when they long-dead bodies pop up unexpectedly. Perhaps a little too dramatic at times, it is filled with complex plots, multiple suspects and satisfying endings. But, who are we kidding. You watch this show to see the best actress from the king of all procedurals, “MI-5”, do her thing. She’s, as you would imagine, great. Even when her dialogue seems more like voiced internal monologue, she still has complete control of the character, her case, and the division she is in charge of. The show’s six episodes are occasionally available on PBS.org, and are available on the PBS Masterpiece streaming service (which also has a free-trial period via Amazon). It’s well made and I can’t wait for the third season due out sometime this year! Oh, and Michael Price’s score for the show is the only score worth mentioning.
(Theme song rating 4 out of 5)
Written on 5/16/2018