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Audrey Kupferberg: Unforgotten

Audrey inspects a film
Audrey Kupferberg

PBS stations across the country have started airing season four of Unforgotten.  For British detective show enthusiasts, this is a very welcome event.  With the PBS Passport streaming service, as well as other home viewing possibilities, it is possible to re-view the first three seasons of this outstanding series.

Please stay with me because there are no spoilers in this commentary.  Be careful, viewers.  The Internet is filled with British responses to season four, which ran there earlier in the year.  My curiosity got the better of me, and I wound up learning an important detail that I never should have discovered.  A real bummer!  I should know better.

Andy Wilson, a seasoned director of episodes of top-flight detective shows such as Poirot, Endeavour, Miss Marple, Wallander, and MI-5, has directed all 24 episodes of Unforgotten.  That fact gives a unity to the series which other shows cannot boast.  The style of Unforgotten combines strict realism with brief moments of psychological visions.  Wilson’s stints in alternative theater as well as music videos bring creative enhancements to the show, usually in the form of fleeting dreamlike flashbacks.

Wilson calls Unforgotten “an interesting drama in the guise of a cop show.”  That’s an accurate summation, to my mind.  The bones of the series, no pun intended, involve the work of Detective Chief Inspector Cassie Stuart, played by the brilliant. Nicola Walker, and Detective Inspector Sunny Khan, played by Sanjeev Bhaskar, of the Bishop Street Police Station in London.  At the start of each season, these two and their trusty colleagues receive new evidence on a case that has gone cold.  For six episodes, they delve and explore. 

There are no car chases and no fist fights.  The atmosphere is composed and polite, but with scenes of deep emotion and suspense.  That is where Wilson’s remark comes to the fore.  The emphasis is not on cop and crook violence.  Instead, the viewer studies the behavior of the various suspects who arise.  The focus switches between Cassie and Sunny, their work, their private lives, and their special friendship – to the suspects, as well as the surviving victims.  Viewers really get to know the suspects, and that is where most of the drama lies.  Once targeted, their lives become as exposed as a sample in a petri dish.

Chris Lang, the writer/creator of the series, explains the structure as “(several) mini-dramas inside a who-done-it.”  For that reason and others, celebrated dramatic actors have appeared in juicy roles.  Tom Courtenay won the 2016 BAFTA TV Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in season 1.  Mark Bonnar won the 2017 BAFTA Scotland for Best Actor in Television the following year.  Alex Jennings’ remarkable performance in season three brought him a BAFTA nomination.

There is no way to underplay the importance and strength of the performances of Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar.  This charismatic pair provides the muscle for this series.  In their roles as Cassie and Sunny, they deal with their own family problems just as they do solving cold case crimes.  Unlike many other TV detectives, Cassie and Sunny are depicted as rather normal family folk.  Both have had marriages.  Both have normal children.  Cassie has an aging father, in addition to grown sons. 

The cases they deal with involve catastrophic crimes, crimes that leave permanent marks on the victims’ surviving friends and families. When we left Cassie at the end of season three, she was having trouble coping with the deplorable crimes and the reasons behind them.  Any healthy-minded person would have problems working in that dreadful world.

I’m going to relish all six episodes of Unforgotten season 4 and look forward to the already agreed-upon future season 5.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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