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Watching the Detectives

Vinyl 45-rpm of 'Watching the Detectives' on Stiff Records.As we started to slip into this lockdown, a family member asked me for television streaming recommendations. Specifically, he and his wife are looking for police procedurals set in England or Europe or, well, just about anywhere but New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, or closer to home.[1]

This over-the-top, bandwidth-huffing response is not what he had in mind. But this sort of time-wasting exercise has been listed under “various duties and tasks” on my job description since August 2011. This sheltering-in-place? I have it perfected.

The binge list

I have opted to list these shows alphabetically, resisting the urge to rank them. No spoilers. Series titles are linked to Wikipedia pages which reveal spoilers only after much scrolling.


  • Aired: 2013-2017
  • Setting: Fictional town in Dorset, England
  • Starring: David Tennant, Olivia Colman, Jodi Whittaker[2]
  • Availability: Netflix
  • Recommended: Yes, highly

Damaged DCI (Tennant) is put out to pasture in a sleepy seaside town and, naturally, is immediately faced with a big case and a chance to redeem himself. Local DI (Colman), who expected a promotion into the job, works the case with but under him.[3] Twists, turns, and the devastating reverberations of the tragedy on so many is well written and portrayed. Dr Who fans will be pleased to see two ex-Doctors, the now-current Doctor, and a TARDIS-traveling companion in the cast.

Happy Valley promo posterHappy Valley

Catherine Cawood (Lancashire) is struggling with the tragic loss of her daughter, who fell victim to the drug problem so prevalent in the high-unemployment area of the show’s setting. Divorced, she hangs by a thread while raising her orphaned grandson and supporting at home her recovering-alcoholic sister. It’s a combustible situation, and combust it does. Violent, gritty, and compelling. The program’s theme song is drawn from a disc I own thanks to an NPR piece on the artist Joann chanced to hear. Its comparison of Jake Bugg to a young Dylan made her think I might enjoy it. I do!

Hinterland promo graphicHinterland

  • Aired: 2013-2016
  • Setting: Aberystwyth, Wales
  • Starring: Richard Harrington, Hannah Daniel
  • Availability: Netflix
  • Recommended: Yes!

Troubled, brooding DCI Mathias (Harrington) investigates a series of deaths and peculiar events that stretch back 20 years or more and may or not be related. He is often on or over the edge of the rule book and, maybe, his own sanity. It’s a great watch, and not only because DS Owen (Daniel) is such a promising young detective. This unique series is set in underrepresented (on the BBC) Wales, employs Welsh talent, and was broadcast in two versions: English and Welsh. (Scenes were filmed twice–once in each language.)

Luther promo posterLuther

  • Aired: 2010-2019
  • Setting: London, England
  • Starring: Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson
  • Availability: Amazon Prime
  • Recommended: Yes, with reservations

DCI John Luther (Elba) is a troubled cop (you will have noticed a trend by now). He isn’t afraid of going rouge when necessary. Alice Morgan (Wilson) is a psycho and was wrongly acquitted of murder. She is obsessed by Luther and may or may not want to help him. The series is the most violent and American-like on this list. Worth watching, critically and popularly well-received, but not my favorite. Its violence is a strange thing to complain about in a slobbering post about murder-as-entertainment, but I do. More specifically, it glorifies a testosterone-fueled “instant justice”[4] cop in a way that I find disturbing. Still, I watch. We have not seen the fifth season (2019, after a hiatus).
  Season 5 airing on Amazon Prime beginning March 23.  

Marcella promo posterMarcella

  • Aired: 2016, 2018, (2020)
  • Setting: London, England
  • Starring: Anna Friel
  • Availability: Netflix
  • Recommended: Not really

Troubled, crazy-as-a-loon DCI Marcella Backland (Friel) investigates some grisly murders in London as she and her marriage fall apart. The really extraordinary coincidences that occur throughout were a little too much for me. I think Joann may have liked this one more than I did. Reportedly, a third season will air this coming summer.

The Missing promo posterThe Missing

  • Aired: 2014, 2016
  • Setting: France, Germany
  • Starring: Tchéky Karyo
  • Availability: Starz, Amazon Prime
  • Recommended: YES!

Probably the show I would’ve ranked at the top had I succumbed to my urge to do so. It is a slow starter, and I had initial misgivings about the subject matter of season one (a missing child). But it soon grabbed me and it hasn’t let go. The lead character, French detective Julien Baptiste (Karyo), is superbly drawn and acted. Each eight-episode season focuses on a single case. Joann preferred season two, and while I might agree, I think both are outstanding.
  A new series, Baptiste, begins on PBS’s Masterpiece April 12.  

Shetland promo posterShetland

  • Aired: 2013-2020
  • Setting: Scotland’s Shetland Islands
  • Starring: Douglas Henshall
  • Availability: PBS/Britbox/Amazon
  • Recommended: Yes, if you can find it

Atmosphere plus! Set in remote and beautiful-to-some, rocky, wet, cold, windswept, why-would-anyone-live-there islands. It’s the kind of place I have often imagined I might love to live, and, for a year, I did live on an Aleutian island that makes a close-enough substitute. I did have the Navy to take care of the most challenging aspects of living on a god-forsaken rock–such as finding meals–so not really the same thing. Anyhow, I thoroughly enjoyed the first three seasons, which consist of only 14 episodes in total. Seasons one and two (8 episodes) were based on four Ann Cleeves novels. Since that time the series has been based on new stories written for television. Very fine show that may be difficult for US viewers to find (PBS may no longer have the license to stream it).

Unforgotten promo posterUnforgotten

  • Aired: 2015-2019
  • Setting: London, England
  • Starring: Nicola Walker, Sanjeev Bhaskar
  • Availability: PBS
  • Recommended: Yes

DCI Cassie Stewart (Walker) and DI Sunny Khan (Bhaskar) investigate “cold cases” in London. Corpses are uncovered in construction digs, when dredging canals, and the like. You might think, when presented with a 30-year-old skeleton, the beleaguered London police force (see Marcella, Luther, and the novels of Derek Raymond) might say, “Wot mate? It’s down to us to solve our bleedin’ grandads’ cases too? Blimey!” Evidently not. At least not according to this show. This crew and their sciencey support staff do some incredible work, and maybe I’m a sucker, but it’s all fairly believable. Engaging television.

Season four should appear on PBS on some point in 2020. Streaming of the first three series is available to PBS donors, and there is a short series promotional video to tempt you.

Wallander promo posterWallander

  • Aired: 2008-2015
  • Setting: Ystad, Sweden
  • Starring: Kenneth Branagh
  • Availability: Netflix
  • Recommended: Yes

Four seasons of Henning Mankell’s Swedish detective Kurt Wallander, with an admirably low-key performance by Kenneth Branagh in the title role. The story of the detective facing difficult family and personal changes is a poignant one. I recommend it for that alone, but the detecting–which extends to tension-filled forays to Riga, the capital city of Latvia–is not too shabby either. I have picked up several of Markell’s novels, but have not yet dipped into them.

And now, something completely different

The two series I list next do not fit my theme, but I lack an editor to reel me in so here they are.

Death in Paradise promo posterDeath in Paradise

  • Aired: 2011-2020+
  • Setting: Fictional island of St Marie (filmed on Guadeloupe)
  • Starring: Sara Martins
  • Availability: Netflix
  • Recommended: Yes, in limited doses

A formulaic, trite, lighthearted show about murder. Murder in a carefree, gorgeous, extremely homicidal paradise. Somehow it works, and it appears likely to go on forever, or at least until the last resident or tourist succumbs to a surprising and yet predictable fate. The show is a visual treat and provides a succession of one-hour escapes. Somehow, in a setting that features beaches and beautiful people drinking colorful cold drinks, it doesn’t exploit the assets. Bikinis are relatively modest and never lingered over. If anyone is having sex on the island, we are not privy to it. And yet, Sara Martins! (Starring? Well, according to me.) Cast turnover roils as the show rolls on. Those who enjoy Columbo and Miss Marple-style whodunnits should enjoy this series. We watched into Season Four before leaving the island, but not feet first as many do.[5]

Longmire promo posterLongmire

  • Aired: 2011-2017
  • Setting: Wyoming, USA
  • Starring: Robert Taylor, Katee Sackhoff, Lou Diamond Phillips
  • Availability: Netflix
  • Recommended: Yes

A western drama and “sheriff procedural” set in an extraordinarily murderous fictional county in southwestern Wyoming (though filmed largely in New Mexico). The series features considerable conflict between the “white” county law enforcement and sovereign Native American communities and, particularly, their tribal police. Henry Standing Bear (Diamond Phillips) straddles the two worlds and supports his friend Sheriff Walt Longmire (Taylor), though not unconditionally. Not without an occasional fist fight either. Deputy Vic Moretti (Sackhoff), a recent addition to the sheriff’s staff by way of Philadelphia, provides more than just sexual tension (between herself and Walt). She provides toughness and courage. This is a fantastic series, and it would have to be to overcome my disinterest, bordering on the prejudicial, in contemporary “cowboy culture.” It is as good as any of the British fare that is the subject of this post.

Mea culpa

“Watching the Detectives” is so often, so predictably, and so lazily abused by journalists and tin-horn blogsters that we longtime fans of Elvis Costello frequently injure ourselves by violently rolling our eyes behind our black horn-rimmed glasses. I doubt the inclusion here of the original film noir video for the song will expiate my sin, but here it is anyway.


  1. Why the USA-averse preference (and I share it)? Speaking for myself, there are at least a couple of reasons.
    One: While I’m sure these shows are no more representative of “real life” in their settings than our domestic crime dramas (such a lot of murders, for one thing), the cultural distance, even the slight one afforded by these mostly UK-set series, helps soften associations with our too-familiar violence problem at home. (Yes, I realize this problem is not endemic to the U.S.)
    Two: I’ve always enjoyed British and Swedish detective novels. Following my long obsession with British whodunnits–written by Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers, and others–I’ve chewed though the Swedish “crime noir” police procedurals of Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall (Martin Beck) and Åke Edwardson (Erik Winter). A few of the series listed here are based on detective novels I will never get the chance to read. The best of these shows scratch my itch to do so. [^]
  2. Jodi Whittaker, or the character she played–who can say which?–was the recipient of my particular “admiration” in this series. One might infer that Hannah Daniel and Sara Martins owe their promotions in their series’ “starring” notes to a similar admiration on my part. The reader should not suppose that Joann does not develop strong attachments to her favorites. She doesn’t blather in public about her feelings, however. [^]
  3. To those unfamiliar with British law enforcement acronyms here are a few important ones: DCI (Detective Chief Inspector), DI (Detective Inspector), DS (Detective Sergeant), and WG (worthless git). [^]
  4. “They call it ‘instant justice’ when it’s past the legal limit…” Yes, I stole that. [^]
  5. As a measure of the wholesomeness of Death in Paradise–a show about murder–consider this: Joann and I bought seasons 1-3 on DVD for my parents. They like it! [^]


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