If Mayday was the BBC’s answer to The Killing then Shetland is their attempt at Wallander (beyond the remake). You certainly couldn’t get much closer to Scandinavia, so maybe the BBC thinks geography is the main reason for the success of those shows. Perhaps their next series will be set in the middle of the North Sea.
Shetland certainly looks the part. The crime drama, about a policeman’s attempts to solve a murder on the remote Scottish islands, is stunningly shot in a beautiful location most of us won’t be familiar with. In the first five minutes there are scenes of rolling hills, isolated cottages, choppy seas and old crumbly edifices converted into modern buildings. The directing makes the most of the setting, and as a piece of visual art it is very captivating. There are some things that could have been done better – holding scenes longer for one, because the show was quite hard to follow and I could have used some breathing space – but on the whole the directing was spot on, and aided well by the quiet and often eerie sound and music.
The writing was subtle and understated. A good comparison would be with last weeks BBC One drama Mayday. In the latter show, the characters were all introduced as shifty, guilty people all of whom were hiding something. In this show there are a number of characters with possible motives, but they could all plausibly turn out to be innocent. They are realistic. And it’s a nice touch that they haven’t over-anglicised the dialogue, as it makes the show more engaging when the characters are using Scottish phrases like the truncated ‘no joy’, and using the appropriate vernacular (although, maybe a Shetland islander would dispute the accuracy of the dialogue).
The setting helps lead the writing, set as it is on a small group of islands, were everyone is connected. It reminds me of the US show Justified, a crime drama based in a southern US community, which makes great use of old family ties and relationships between criminals and victims alike. In both the US show and Shetland, such a setting adds an extra dimension to what could be a routine procedural and elevates it to something more intriguing.
And intriguing is a good word to describe this show; intriguing and slow. I am a big fan of TV that doesn’t try to rush things, and which allows plot to emerge naturally, but there is a limit to this which if crossed can lead to the audience watching the clock. Shetland pushed that limit a little. It is also quite intangible; there is very little to hold onto. I feel it may drift entirely from my memory after it’s over. Hopefully the WW2 plotline and the second episode will change this and add something a little more engaging.
The acting and the characters are both very natural. The relationship between the detective, DI Jimmy Perez, and his daughter is conveyed well and the way the various aspects of that relationship – the dead mother, the absent biological father – emerge is good, subtle writing. It is also interesting; I genuinely want to know more about these characters. And it is original too; the absent father has a relationship with the new dad, and it is an amicable one. There are no clichés here.
The various different suspects and supporting roles however are not particularly well-drawn or filled-out yet. I know very little about any of them. Each character has simply been given one dominant aspect each – the young policeman is angry, the student is bitchy, the old man mysterious – without being fleshed out much at all. It’s a problem for a show which has so many characters but consists of just two one hour-long episodes, and I am not really sure how you fix it, except by cutting some of those characters.
The acting as I mentioned is good. Douglas Henshall, as Perez, perhaps takes a little too much influence from Kenneth Branagh’s Kurt Wallander, but it’s a small criticism, and he adds a lot to the role. Alison O’Donnell is also good as Perez’s assistant in a role that could be clownish, but she manages to carry the comic relief well enough.
Shetland might not grab you from the first minute – it’s very slow and introspective – but it’s well written, directed and acted, and there’s enough intrigue in the story to have me looking forward to the concluding part.