This review contains spoilers.
Three series in, and we know the drill. A man in a high-vis vest spots something unusual in the debris of a moving JCB bucket and raises an arm to halt work. Tentative prodding of the something unusual reveals it to be a human skeleton. DCI Stuart and DI Khan are called in. They’re told by the forensics officer that the bones could be thousands of years old (but they aren’t). Then, Nicola Walker uses her serious, quiet voice to tell her team that this skeleton belongs to somebody’s loved one and they owe it to them to find out the truth.
There’s comfort in repetition, and there’s certainly comfort in Cassie, Sunny and co., who are less police officers than they are a choir of angels, gliding down from the clouds on great white wings to deliver closure to those in pain.
They lead from the heart, this lot, putting emotional justice ahead of clearance rates. Any questions as to whether stretched resources might be better spent on live investigations rather than dead ones are evaporated instantly by the laser beams of empathy that shoot from Nicola Walker’s eyes.
Series three’s grisly discovery invites even more empathy than usual. The JCB has dug up the bones of a teenage girl who went missing eighteen years ago on the eve of the millennium. Unlike Unforgotten’s previous victims, her case is recent enough to be remembered by the team. She was the same age as DC Lingley. There was a lead suspect at the time—Hayley’s boyfriend—but no conviction and until now, no body.
Hayley, an identical twin survived by her mother (Brid Brennan) and sister Jessica (Bronagh Waugh), is identified through Unforgotten’s now-traditional first clue. These tend to be needles-in-haystacks the endless possibilities of which are satisfyingly narrowed down by some good old-fashioned coppering. A car key led the team to Jimmy Sullivan in series one, a watch led them to David Walker in series two. A titanium plate attached to Hayley’s wrist bone—a souvenir from a childhood holiday accident—is what leads Sunny and Cassie to her case file, and the heartbreak it contains.
Sister Jessica’s breakdown in the episode’s closing moments announce that series three isn’t going to have any less of that than the previous two. Unforgotten is all about the emotional aftermath of crime, for victim, perpetrator and everyone in between. It’s about guilt and shame, and love and pain. In a TV landscape with no shortage of bodies on slabs, this is the one crime drama that reminds us what the loss of a human life really means. It’s as big-hearted as its two lead detectives.
On the subject of hearts, Sunny’s no longer single and things are moving apace with his new partner. Cassie’s dad Martin, too, has a six-month relationship on the go. Son Adam is half a world away in New York. All of it serves to underline Cassie’s relative isolation. At home these days, it’s just her and a glass of red.
Episode one’s other job is to introduce the cast of suspects, this time a quartet of fifty-something men whose role in how Hayley came to be buried under the central reservation of a motorway will gradually unfurl. There’s James Fleet as an artist with plans to marry a refugee woman with a young son, Alex Jennings as a GP with a cruel streak, Neil Morrissey as a cash-strapped salesman, and Kevin McNally as a celebrity with a troubled addict son.
It follows a pattern, Unforgotten, but patterns are reassuring, especially when confronting such distressing subject matter. This opener promises that this new run won’t deviate far from the footsteps of the previous two, both of which were satisfying, involving and moving. Well, if it ain’t broke.