Anyone who knows me is probably all too aware that I loathe the summer heat of late July and August. Add in the humidity of North Carolina and you’re likely to find me either bitching nonstop in some sweaty corner of the state or, more likely, huddled inside enjoying one of my beloved UK crime dramas. Happily, being a crime writer, I can claim to be doing research when I sit, slack-jawed and drooling, and stare at the television set. Over the years, I have seen so many episodes of so many shows that I can probably tell you the names of every journeyman actor in the British Isles (of course, you could probably do the same just by watching the Harry Potter franchise, but that’s a whole different story).
I make no apologies for my entertainment preferences. Like many a mystery lover, I became hooked on British crime shows because they are better than their US counterparts. Why? I have found that UK crime shows do a much better job of incorporating characterization into their plots without slowing the storyline down, are unafraid to tackle controversial subjects in realistic but humane ways, and put more time and emphasis into exploring the impact of crime on ordinary people. Another bonus is that the upper crust remnant of the British social system is so much more interesting than America’s ruling class, i.e., the narcissistic uber-wealthy. I attribute these differences to too many American screenwriters using their time in television to prove that they can come up with the same kind of ridiculous plot twists or last-minute reveals found all too often in big-budget movies. They’re not pouring their heart and soul into their teleplays. They’re just looking for a leg up into the movies. And that’s a shame because the difference shows.
There are many series I could give you my opinion on. (Me? Give my opinion? Never!) In fact, at this point, I have given my book club so many suggestions that I am sure their heads are spinning. With that in mind, I thought I would offer a few recommendations that you can refer to when you need something new to watch. I also thought a good place to start would be by highlighting a few British crime dramas that I find to be underappreciated. There are plenty of UK shows that have huge and loyal American followings. But here are a few that you may have overlooked, along with the reasons why I love them. One thing every one of these shows shares is fantastic character development that emerges over the arc of many different episodes and, often, emphasizes the relationships between series characters.
I love this show and the fact that it doesn’t have more stars on Amazon Prime just proves my theory that people suck. (Though, more likely, it indicates that a big chunk of people don’t like humor with their crime. Obviously, I do.) The title comes from the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” which is integral to the show’s premise: London’s Metropolitan Police Force has created a (fictitious) new cold case unit called the Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad. UCOS is staffed by three older detectives who have been invited out of retirement to man the new squad. These “old dogs” are supervised by a highly intelligent and attractive blonde who is also hilariously plainspoken and pulls no punches when letting them know how she feels about their theories and case progress. She is a master of sarcasm but delivers her zingers with love. Exceptional self-awareness drives the other characters as does a respect for each other. While fielding the ridicule of younger members of the force and countless jokes about their old age, the team of three detectives and their leader quickly bond and learn to respect each other’s talents and wisdom born out of experience, leading to an exceptional success rate in solving cases. The tone of the series is mostly lighthearted but the cases they investigate are full of heart and steeped in authenticity. A great deal of this show is devoted to character development but it never comes off as contrived and it never takes away from the inherent mystery. The acting is so spot on that I am convinced that they cast this show first and then wrote the episodes to accommodate each actor’s interpretation of their character. The four main actors absolutely shine and, even when they are replaced in later seasons, the replacements bring a unique new take to the show. It is only in Season 10, when they lose the outstanding Amanda Redman as their supervisor, that the show loses a bit of its appeal. (In their defense, Amanda Redman is impossible to replace.) Each member of the ensemble cast is outstanding, but Dennis Waterman (clearly a co-founder of the Bill Nighy school of character acting) often steals the show with his three ex-wives and deep sense of his own shortcomings. If you want some laughs and warmth along with your crime drama, this is the show for you. Best of all, you can spend from now until next summer binging on 107 episodes across 12 seasons. (Thanks to Jon Jordan of crimespree Magazine for recommending this show to me; I would never have noticed it otherwise.)
Inspector George Gently
British television crime writers are absolutely obsessed with the 1960s. Name a show and I guarantee you there is an episode that will take you back to that decade, usually through a plot involving an aging rock band, or now-respectable former groupies, or some upper-crust character whose behavior back in the day threatens their dignity and social standing now. I get that. I believe the 1960s saw the last successful British Invasion of America. Well, George Gently is an entire series set in the 1960s. It deals with some extremely serious topics, such as rapid implementation of the death penalty (by hanging in the U.K. at that time), predatory behavior of older men toward young girls in the music world, police corruption, racial discrimination, and, of course, the 1960s standbys of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. I love Martin Shaw in the lead role and Lee Ingleby as his sidekick (Ingleby is probably better known as the bus driver Stan Shunpike in the Harry Potter movie franchise). George Gently is a cynical man who, as his name implies, is nonetheless still a gentle soul burdened by life’s sorrows. (How do I know this? You can see it in his eyes. Or, at least, I can. Call me, Martin! I don’t care if you’ve been divorced three time.) As Gently educates his less experienced partner on the ways of the world, together they work toward the solution of each case. They made 25 episodes of this show over eight seasons and I loved every single one of them.
Life on Mars
This is a quirky and delightful show that, sadly, only lasted for sixteen episodes across two seasons (though they keep saying they are making a new series and never follow through). Compare it to the American version (produced by David Kelly) and you’ll understand what I’m talking about when I say that British crime dramas have more depth than their American counterparts. The premise is a strange one: a Manchester policeman named Sam Tyler gets hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up to find he’s back in 1973 working at the same police station and location as he was before, albeit with a lower rank. Supposedly, people love this show because there’s a lot of ambiguity as to whether Tyler has died, is in a coma, or has managed to time travel. That’s not why I love it, and it’s probably not why you are going to love it unless you’re a fan of Lost or Doctor Who. I love it because of the main character’s reactions to being back in 1973. The cars, the clothes, and, most of all, the attitudes will transport you back to a pre-social media time. Often, the contrast between then and now is rooted in issues like how women on the police force are treated or racial equality. But the tone never gets preachy and always maintains a strain of lightheartedness even when the plots get pretty serious. Best of all, the production of this show takes its cue from the cop buddy movies of the 1970s and features lots of iconic action movie tropes. If you were around at all in the 1970s, or if you are a fan of that decade, you’ll probably enjoy this show. Make sure you watch the British version and not one of the versions from what seems to be a dozen other countries.
You can really see the influence of women writers, directors, and producers on this show. It features some of the best and most realistic relationship dynamics I’ve ever seen portrayed on the small screen, notably between the protagonist, a police sergeant played by Sarah Lancashire (at right above) and her sister (at left), who is a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict trying as hard as she can to turn her life around. Set in West Yorkshire in Northern England, this series features a middle-aged female police officer (who does not look as if she lives at the gym for a change) trying to come to terms with her teenage daughter’s post-rape suicide while raising her young grandson (a product of that rape). Sounds rough, I know, and the show is undeniably heartbreaking at times, but somehow the sheer grit, strength, and love displayed by the main characters make watching Happy Valley a moving and sometimes inspiring experience. As a bonus, you can see a young James Norton absolutely igniting the screen as a drug dealer and rapist who gets out of prison and wants to be a part of something better even as he copes with what he has done. Sadly, they only made 12 episodes of this show over two seasons but at least each episode is sixty minutes long.
Your turn: If you have any thoughts on these four shows or some suggestions about underappreciated shows you’d like to share, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.