Over the past few years successful television crime drama has taken a hyperborean tilt, and writer Ann Cleeves is among those who have staked-out the territory. Vera, the adaptation of her mystery-procedural series featuring the excellent Brenda Blethlyn as Vera Stanhope, Northumberland Detective Chief Inspector, is entering its eight season. And now we have Shetland, based on Cleeves’s series set on the Scottish archipelago and featuring Douglas Henshall as Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez. Produced by ITV Studios for BBC Scotland, Shetland is now filming its fourth season, and it earned 2016 BAFTAs for Best Drama and Henshall as Best Actor, and was nominated for its writing, direction, and cinematography.
The series’s acclaim is deserved, and its keenest asset is arguably its pervasive sense of place. Perez and his team are not investigating crimes just anywhere, and they are not pursuing their cases in generic textbook fashion—they must rely on unique skills and strategies, honed with an understanding of an insular, tight-knit society. Though the rock-ribbed islands may be thinly populated, and though trees are rarities on the storm-strafed moors and sheep farms, there are plenty of hiding places among the residents’ dark psychological recesses, in twisted personal histories, old grudges, stunted emotions. Shetland conveys a superb sense of island life—the love of the open landscape, the constant challenge of sea and wind, the hardy independence of those who dwell there and the occasional clutch of claustrophobia that can pull them down. Crimes are not often impersonal, and therefore Perez and his team, though always professional, usually find their way through a case less by abstract procedure and more by exploring the clues of human psychology and narrative within the context of the genius loci so distinctive to the islands.
Henshall is understated but dogged as DI Perez, who moved back to Shetland with his daughter Cassie (Erin Armstrong) after the death of his wife. Though he had thought of it as something of a sanctuary, a place where people don’t lock their doors at night, he has now learned that death goes on there just as implacably (sometimes unnaturally) as does life. Henshall makes the quiet, straightforward Perez a watchable synthesis: he’s a man who wants to lead a quiet life and savor simple joys, and yet who is driven once disruption occurs to suss out as many shards of truth as may be found and to restore whatever degree and quality of order can be negotiated. Alison O’Donnell as the young officer he mentors makes her character at once knowable, lived-in, alive with specifics, as do the rest of the uniformly fine supporting cast which includes Stephen Robertson, Mark Bonnar, and Julie Graham.
The open land and craggy shorescapes are bleak—as one native describes it “…this terrible beauty”—and so are most of the interiors. If you incline toward the crisply atavistic art direction of the Joan Hickson Marples and David Suchet Poirots, this may not be your cup of tea. What Shetland does share with those masterful adaptations is the fact that though murder and violence occur they are not the focus but the catalyst for the subsequent storytelling. The suspense is grounded in character and the fact that, even in a small society closely bound on a few islands, motivation is frequently less than obvious—even when faces are familiar and the quotidian details of life so apparently in plain view. Though some viewers may find the combination of sweeping, exposed setting and familiarity breeding contempt unrelentingly harsh, others—in our age of random terror perpetrated from grotesquely perverted ideology and radicalized dehumanization—will take heart in the fact that these episodes of crime, inquiry, and resolution begin, weave, ravel, and conclude along a spectrum of intelligible human failure, human sympathy, and human justice.
– Hadley Hury
(On BBC One and Netflix)