Shetland is a series of Scottish islands in the North sea, which are actually pretty far away from the Scottish mainland. Think Cuba, not the Florida Keys. The islands are windy and cold, and the sea is quite dangerous to a weekender or neophyte.
Shetland is also an intelligent British TV series currently on Netflix about a single dad, Police Chief Jimmy Perez, enjoyably embodied by actor Douglas Henshall. The first couple of episodes are adaptations of a book series by the venerable British scribe Ann Cleeves, who knows her way around the dark corners of the human heart. But the show is called Shetland for a reason and the real star may be the breathtaking scenery and unusual customs and perspectives of the locals, who seem to be just as Scandinavian as they are Scottish.
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First off, big points to Shetland for never, ever falling into any Scottish stereotypes: no kilts; no bagpipes; not a single mention of Billy Connelly. The characters are quite often retired types, living in squalor at their croft (which I guess is just a small farm). But you see all types of people, good, bad, young, old, working class, posh and somewhere in the middle. It’s a different view of Scotland than, say, Skyfall.
Of course, I imagine that the actual Shetland — like Oxford in Inspector Morse — is not actually as rife with murder as the show would have you imagine. TV’s Shetland seems like Chicago in the ‘30s, drugs, prostitutes, stalking, murder! Although, the real drug kingpin is located in urban Glasgow. Only his lieutenants are in Shetland.
I like the Shetland TV series a lot. It does something that a lot of shows don’t do and adapts to its strengths as it goes along, which are character and attention to detail. So, Season 1 is a series of British TV movies, but by Season 3, it’s a complete series with six episodes of mystery building upon mystery with the characters developing. For instance, on a lot of TV shows, when it’s time for a kid to go to college, but they want to keep the character around, something happens that keeps the kid around. Shetland does a pretty funny riff on this by having Jimmy and his daughter, Cassie, just visit when she’s at college. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but my point is that it strengthens the narrative illusion when the show doesn’t have to do back flips to maintain the status quo.
Oh, and I don’t know if you get a free Shetland vacation if you’re on the show, but some pretty heavy hitters show up on Shetland, like Brian Cox, who was in Skyfall! He appears in a wonderfully understated — particularly by his standards — guest spot. And the always solid Ciaran Hinds bringing some real depth to a character. Even Archi Panjabi from The Good Wife surprised me by being on there. She’s great!
One warning: In Season 3, the show does have a shocking (though off-camera) act of violence against women that really surprised me. But the consequences are actually dealt with. It results in big changes for a lot of the characters. One of the guys, trying to understand, doesn’t understand at all and it’s a nice TV moment (not a nice moment for either of the characters).
If you’re a fan of heavy wool sweaters, as I am, the Shetland TV series is the show for you. After a while, it becomes hilarious how frequently Jimmy Perez shows up in a new sweater. That guy must do a lot of online shopping. But Jimmy makes those sweaters work! In Season 3, he even tells a visitor how to keep warm in the cold wind.
The mysteries are clever, the characters change, and people’s lives move ahead. Shetland quietly breaks a lot of TV rules and gives a thinking person a great procedural. If you like British mysteries, this is worth your time.
(Here’s a quick joke I couldn’t work in the main text. If you’re looking for a drinking game for British mysteries, drink any time someone is sitting by themselves looking at old pictures and notices something odd.)