As a fan of “Last Tango in Halifax,” I’ve often thought Nicola Walker, who plays messed-up Gillian, was stuck with the short end of the stick. She plays a totally non-glamorous farmer who’s been through one life disaster after another. It’s no wonder Gillian’s perpetual expression seems to be “When and where will I be kicked next?”
While the character’s problems seem never-ending, the actor is certainly enjoying a break from all that—two, in fact. Nicola Walker stars in “River” and “Unforgotten,” two new and absorbing British television series. She plays a detective in both, but these shows couldn’t be more dissimilar. One is a solid police procedural; the other a psychological drama (to put it mildly) with elements of fantasy. Both are well worth your time.
“River,” now streaming on Netflix, has an intriguing opening that introduces us to DI John River (Stellan Skarsgård) and DS “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker). While on duty they bicker over her addiction to fast food and she sings along to Tina Charles’ disco anthem “I Love to Love” as it plays on the radio (Warning: That song will end up stuck in your head for days). They spot a car they’ve evidently been looking for, and it’s not until River has chased the driver on foot to his death that you see that Stevie’s equally dead. River’s been talking to a ghost, or, as he prefers to say, a “manifest.” It seems he’s had experiences like this since he was a boy; his manifests appear to be the victims in his unsolved cases. There’s one outlier, however—Thomas Cream, a 19th century mass murderer, whose spirit dogs him, goads him and simply won’t leave him alone.
“River” is the type of show that people are sure to either love or hate. The tone of the first episode is very uncertain—it’s like “Topper” meets “Law and Order.” The pace is slow and there’s a lot of Scandinavian brooding by the Swedish-born River, whose future as a police detective hinges on clearance by the department’s psychologist. Fortunately things start to pick up noticeably by the second episode when River solves an open case and begins to spend most of his time on Stevie’s murder to the irritation of D.C.I. Chrissie Reid (the excellent Lesley Manville), his superior officer. He’s joined by a new partner, D.I. Ira King (a very winning Adeel Akhtar), who, in response to River’s noting the Hebrew derivation of his name, states “My father’s Muslim, my mother’s Jewish. I’m the original Gaza Strip.” King turns out to be as sharp as River who, despite (or because of?) his manifests, excels at his job.
But Stevie is there at every turn. We meet her twisted family, including the brother newly released from prison whom she had sent up for murder years before. Some potentially incriminating evidence comes to light: Stevie’s hefty withdrawal of funds on the day of her murder; her possession and use of a second, non-official mobile; her affectionately greeting an unknown man as revealed in some CCTV footage. You begin to wonder how accurate River’s manifest of her really is. Was she the morally upright cop with the fortitude to send her own brother to jail, or was she a crooked officer on the take?
The ambiguity is only intensified by the CCTV footage that we repeatedly view of River and Stevie leaving the Chinese restaurant on the night of her murder. They appear to be arguing, she hands him something and begins to walk across the street. She stops in the middle, turns and says something to him, only to be shot in the head by someone in a passing car. The ultimate reveal of what happened during that last encounter is heartbreaking; Skarsgård’s and Walker’s performances in that scene will stay with you for quite some time.
Unlike “River,” Ms. Walker’s other police drama, “Unforgotten,” is thoroughly grounded in reality. We begin with the discovery of a skeleton buried in the basement of a house undergoing demolition. It’s quickly established that this was a male murder victim, and the questions of who he was, whom he knew, why and when he was murdered and by whom are up to DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker), her partner DS Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) and her squad to solve.
There’s a lot of forensic razzle-dazzle to keep us entertained, as well as the introduction of several characters who seem to be miles removed from the discovery in the basement. These include a business mogul on the verge of an appointment to an important government post, a vicar, a woman married to a soccer coach, and a disabled man whose wife is evidently suffering from dementia. Out of such elements is a mystery made, and this one is spun out like vintage Agatha Christie. The reveals, especially in the first episode, are particularly enjoyable, and when you see DCI Stuart smile in awe at what the forensics team eventually uncovers, you’ll find yourself grinning in appreciation.
In addition to unraveling the whodunit, “Unforgotten” treats us to a display of some good old-fashioned dogged police work. DCI Stuart and DS Khan are terrific cops, but better still, she’s an excellent boss. Some of the best scenes in “Unforgotten” involve her skull sessions with her squad, and the praise and encouragement she gives out is heartwarming (Frankly I would like to work for her). She knows how to bring out the best in people, and this is no more evident than in her relationship with her partner. She considers his opinions at length—he’s not just her sounding board or a sidekick. Both are totally unflappable. When they interview business mogul Sir Philip Cross, whose angry condescension is designed to cow them into silence, Stuart and Khan nevertheless keep at him until he has no alternative but to show them the door.
While I enjoyed both shows, I preferred “River.” It’s certainly different from your standard cop show, and the chemistry of the two leads overcame the slow pacing and various plot twists that even I, who rarely figures out a whodunit, guessed correctly long before the reveals. In contrast “Unforgotten” spends perhaps too much time on those apparently unrelated characters I referred to, but to me the bigger issue is that I don’t buy the identity of the murderer. Your mileage may vary, however–opinion on various discussion boards seems to be split on this topic.
While “Unforgotten” has already been renewed, there’s no news yet concerning “River.” While I’d love to see more of River and Stevie, there would have to be significant changes in the premise of the show if it were to continue. At one point River tells his psychologist that a manifest disappears when he solves the case. Keeping Stevie around as Marion Kirby to River’s Cosmo Topper would undermine the excellence of what we’ve seen, plus some important characters would be missing, given their fate in what has transpired so far.
Sometimes it’s better not to tamper with success.