This review contains spoilers.
There’s more than a hint of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the Beeb’s latest stab at crime drama. Set about as close to Scandinavia as a British drama can get, Shetland uses the remoteness of its setting to convey the sense of community shattering that the Swedish screen version of Stieg Larsson’s debut novel did too. Ultimately Shetland isn’t as dark as anything that has filtered its way down from our friends in the North, this is primetime BBC One, not Four after all but its opening half made for an entertaining and likeable hour of television.
Things begin with an elderly Mima Wilson rummaging through her old photos when a strange noise draws her out of her middle-of-nowhere house, only for her to be greeted by a round from a shotgun. Her body is discovered the next morning by local bobby on a bike, Sandy Wilson. The policeman riding a bike was thankfully where the similarities to Balamory ended. Within minutes, it’d been revealed that Sandy was the victim’s grandson, an early indication of just how complex the web of characters Shetland would introduce us to over the next hour would be.
Before them though Shetland needed to set up its main character, Detective Jimmy Perez, played by Scottish drama stalwart Douglas Henshall. Shetland gets a real sense of its location over through the Perez character and Henshall’s performance. As opposed to the city-dwelling cops of fellow crime dramas, Perez is sympathetic and warm towards those he encounters while investigating the murder.
Although we got to know little of his back story this episode, we gleaned that Perez has been away and returned to Shetland with his stepdaughter Cassie, following the death of her mother. Perez likes his Shetland as the place where people don’t lock their doors at night, and the total disdain he shows for city type, university Professor Berglin leads us to suspect that he is perhaps running away to the wilderness of Shetland from something that happened previously, possibly the death of his wife.
Jimmy Perez is a decent leading character for Shetland and Henshall is good enough in this opening episode. The time that we see him interacting with his stepdaughter is limited and they’re going to have filled in a few more blanks if the makers want to build up enough intrigue that viewers will be curious to tune in for a second story in the future. Henshall does have a nice, warm chemistry with his co-star Alison O’Donnell as Tosh, his much younger colleague.
O’Donnell is the slight comic relief in Shetland, a lightening of the tone. Upon being asked to photograph Mima Wilson’s body she throws up, not from the sight of the body but from the chocolate vodka she has over-indulged in the night before. Although Tosh seems like an unwelcome comedy addition to Shetland, Alison O’Donnell is so likeable in the role that it’s hard not to warm to the character.
The investigation into Mima Wilson’s murder brings Perez and the viewer into contact with a host of characters at an alarmingly quick rate. The short version is that on one of the Shetland isles there are two families living, the Wilsons and the Haldanes, who might be at odds with each other over something that happened a long time ago which left one family rich and the other poor. Into this is an archaeological dig team led by Gemma Chan’s Hattie James who uncovered part of some human remains on Mima Wilson’s land, which in turn is being sought by a Shetlander who wants to build holiday homes there, who just also happens to be the biological father of Perez’s stepdaughter. And breathe.
Shetland crams so many character introductions into its first half hour that unfortunately none of them make much impression apart from Perez and Tosh. A handy catch up in front of the police station pin board was supplied towards the end of the episode but trying to follow who everyone was talking about did feel like a bit of a chore.
There was plenty to like about the opening episode of Shetland. The Isles themselves look absolutely stunning and although the show does little to promote the mobile phone coverage in the region, the rolling hills and seas look fantastic. The juxtaposition of the tranquillity of Shetland with the ferocity of the crime, and in particular the closing moments, nicely plays into the theme of isolation from the modern way of life that Shetland still has and that is held in such fondness by Perez.
Tonally there wasn’t a great deal of edge, and Shetland came across as a slightly more friendly version of the Scandinavian dramas such as The Killing by which it’s clearly influenced, not least in its heavy leaning on family themes. This debut episode was well paced though with some good characters and chemistry and did more than enough to make its viewer more than curious about where the second half will go.
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