All together now… all we do is hide away. All we do is hide away. I’ve been upside down. I don’t wanna be the right way round…
What is it?
Unforgotten follows a team of detectives led by DCI Cassie Stewart as they investigate historical murders – in police terms, any murder that occurred a few years ago but the body has only recently been found. The series is split into six hour-long episodes and airs on ITV (it was initially created to fill the gap between seasons of Broadchurch).
The series starts with the discovery of a (usually skeletal) body. The audience is also introduced to four main suspects in the first episode. We then follow Cass and her team as they explore the dead person’s life, and the secrets that link them to the four suspects.
Beware of spoilers.
Who’s in it?
Cass is played by Nicola Walker, previously of Spooks (she was also in Last Tango In Halifax and Four Weddings and a Funeral). The main members of her team are: her deputy DI Sunil ‘Sunny,’ Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar), DS Murray Boulting (Jordan Long), DC Jake Collier (Lewis Reeves) and DC Fran Lingley (Carolina Main). The suspects obviously change from series to series, but actors that I recognised have included Trevor Eve (Sir Philip Cross in season 1), Bernard Hill (Father Robert Greaves in season 1), Mark Bonnar (Connor Osborne in season 2) and Alex Jennings (Dr Tim Finch in season 3).
What I liked.
Walker is excellent as Cass, infusing the character with warmth and empathy towards the families of victims, and the moral authority to lead her team and confront the various suspects. The glimpses we get of Cass’ home life are nice too – they give us a good sense of what else she’s got going on in her life without ever getting soapy, and they give us a better sense of what kind of person she is. We see her help her dad come to terms with learning of his wife’s adultery in season 1, struggle to cope when he moves in with his new fiancée in season 3, and even briefly flirt with one of her son’s friends in season 2 (and boo-hiss if the writers chickened out of giving Cass a boyfriend half her age. They wouldn’t have thought twice about giving a forty-something man a twenty-something girlfriend).
Cass is likeable and her home life is relatable, but she’s also a very believable, competent cop. We don’t really see her have case-cracking flashes of inspiration like Sherlock Holmes, or whoever the current lead character of Death in Paradise is. Instead, we see her slowly and carefully build up information, learn when her suspects are lying by questioning the people around them and other witnesses, and make logical deductions from the holes in the evidence and from what she knows to be likely. She doesn’t storm around shouting and swearing, she isn’t an alcoholic, and although she is obviously troubled by the crimes she investigates, she’s portrayed as a professional. She deals with it as being part of her job.
Sunny, and the relationship between Sunny and Cass.
As much as Cass, Sunny is a well-acted, well-written character, who fits perfectly into the mould of the polite, relentlessly methodical detective that Unforgotten has created. There’s a believable chemistry between him and Cass, and a strong sense of loyalty, and as aside it’s nice to see a detective show where neither of the two leads is a white male (fanatical obsessives over white male detectives will have to go watch one of the many, many, many other shows featuring them).
Sunny’s home life isn’t featured as much as Cass’, but it’s a nice portrayal of a single dad trying to raise two teenage girls, which again doesn’t rely on becoming soapy and having parent-child screaming child matches. He’s shown as a loving dad who wants to do what’s best for his girls, even when he worries that that’s not necessarily best for him (and it’s a really touching scene when he asks his daughters if they want their mum to move back in and they tell him that they prefer him happy with his new girlfriend).
His and Cass’ working relationship is well-drawn and depicted, especially towards the end of Season 3 as Cass begins to appear obviously depressed and struggles with the nature of the crimes they’ve uncovered. As she falters at times, Sunny seamlessly takes over from her in a briefing, and in an interview – we can see that he recognises that she’s struggling, and he picks up the slack like it’s no big deal. There’s no attempt to get a cheap subplot out of Sunny using it to play office politics, he steps in like the loyal Number One he is, and their relationship of solid mutual respect shines through.
Methodical police work.
Unforgotten unfolds at a fairly slow pace. The first episode is generally preoccupied with how Cass and Sunny will identify their victim, which gives the audience a chance to meet and familiarise themselves with the suspects years after the crime – many of whom have become respectable pillars of the community in the meantime. Then, as the identity of the victim becomes clear, so do the links between them and the suspects.
Cass and her team then pick over their stories one thread at a time to uncover what actually happened all those years ago. Unforgotten makes its cases challenging by setting them in the past, so that forensic evidence is hard to come by, memories have faded, and records have been lost. Cass has to be patient, thorough, and meticulous. Although she doesn’t have ‘eureka,’ moments where the entire case flashes before her eyes and then, Tada! She has the answer, both she and her team make logical deductions to move their cases along. For instance, in Season 3, one of the crucial breakthroughs, after they’ve roughly accounted for the movements of the four friends who’ve been implicated, is to deduce who their victim’s likely movements would have brought them nearer, allowing them to focus their investigation and identify the killer.
The questioning is done calmly and politely, often by appointment (which is often how police handle more complicated cases and historical enquiries). And Cass is never shown as superhuman. All the members of her team make various important breakthroughs. Her skill is in pulling that information together to see what’s really happening. Again, this is very realistic. Detective work involves lots of gathering and logging information, and the job of the senior investigating officers is to pull all that together and see what’s really happening. Much of what Cass and Sunny decide is done in informal chats between them – in the car, in her office, in the pub – as well as in formal briefings.
The slow pace is fully warranted and is never boring – there are twists and turns galore. What it allows is a proper look at how Cass and her team go about gathering their evidence and building their cases, and it allows the audience enough time to see how the series is unfolding and come to their own conclusions. It feels authentic, it carries us along with it, and it’s a refreshing change from the format of having one lead detective doing everything, with maybe one sidekick and a few others who are just kind of there.
Following the four suspects.
Detective dramas have to think carefully about when, and how, to reveal their prime suspect. Doing it too early can risk making the detective look stupid for not catching them, especially because the audience then can’t be distracted by any red herrings. Doing it too late and there’s no time for the confrontation and confession that the format usually demands as a payoff.
Unforgotten lets us know who the four suspects are immediately, but uses this cleverly to hint at what they all might be hiding, and effectively play them off against each other in the audience’s minds. And the writers are careful not to tip their hands too soon, either. Sometimes it is quite clearly shown that someone is lying… but sometimes the audience only finds out when Cass and Sunny do. Instead of making Cass look stupid, following the suspects gives us a better sense of how difficult her cases are to crack – and how good a detective she must be to get her results.
Drip-feeding the reveals helps to sway the audience from one suspect to another. So, in season 3, TV presenter James Hollis (Kevin McNally) is shown apparently inducing his friends to lie for him about where they were on the night of the victim’s death – although later in the episode it is revealed that his concern is less for him than for his son. And midway through season 2 there was the absolute bombshell reveal that three of the four suspects knew each other – that completely flipped the series on its head, especially as Cass didn’t know this, and wasn’t able to find out until well into the fifth episode of six.
This approach works on another level as well. It allows us to understand each of the four individuals, and how the lies they’ve told themselves over the years have affected their lives. The son of the victim in season 2, for instance, blamed himself for his dad leaving and wouldn’t let anyone close to him as a result – to the obvious frustration and sadness of his clearly interested neighbour. Unforgotten thus becomes a psychological examination of the effect of lying as much as it’s a police procedural. And it raises the stakes for us in the audience as well. You can start to like some of the suspects, even root for them (I had one in season 2 and one in season 3 that I was really hoping it wasn’t). Someone’s life is going to be destroyed, along with all the people around them, and you start trying to pick and choose who you hope it doesn’t happen to.
The opening credits music.
Ok, so despite what I said at the start of this review, it’s not really singalong material. It’s still a great song…
Actually, as a serious point, it’s well-chosen. It’s gentle and melodic, and the lyrics speak of secrets hidden and lives disjointed whilst images of what will be seen during the investigation flash up in the background. It sets the tone for the series to come, and this is what any good opening credits sequence should do.
What I didn’t like.
Not very many of these to be fair, and my usual disclaimer – they are fun to spot but if they spoil your enjoyment of the show, you’re watching it wrong.
Actually Unforgotten doesn’t really have too many of these. The focus might be mostly on Cass and Sunny, and then on Murray, Jake and Fran, but the briefing scenes always show a team of twenty or more. The questioning is always done calmly and politely, usually with appointments being made at first, and Cass is always thorough and methodical. But, if I must…
Yet another British detective show where the detectives forget that they have stab vests (and then stand in front of officers with stab vests to make arrests). Very little use of exhibit serial numbers in interviews, although I wonder if that’s become so associated with Line of Duty that some other shows don’t bother with it to try and make themselves stand out. And, a weird one – Cass’ boss is always credited as Detective Superintendent Andrews, but he’s always shown wearing a full dress uniform. British detectives very, very rarely appear in dress uniforms, it’s a rather odd mistake to make.
I know a couple of people who’ve complained that it’s a bit unrealistic for Cass’ team to get three historical murder cases on the bounce – like the twenty-per-year body count in Midsomer. I think this could be easily solved by making it clear that Cass’ team are historical enquiry specialists, and I think that’s what they’re supposed to be anyway. It just needs to be clearer onscreen!
Cass’ mistake in season 3.
So, in season 3, Cass leaves a confidential file behind in a coffee shop, which identifies a major suspect in the case she’s working on, resulting eventually in his being stabbed and killed by a vigilante. Inasmuch as Unforgotten is making a very good point about Trial by Internet and the increasing lynch-mob mentality of many segments of the public today, I quite liked this. Especially when the murder was linked to a noxious blogger who, it was revealed, was a failed journalist saying increasingly shocking things to try and be noticed. There’s a real rush these days to judge before evidence is in, and this can only be harmful to the judicial process – let alone the incredible harm the disregard for inconvenient facts is doing to Western democracy.
My problem is… even depressed and tired, I can’t see Cass making that kind of mistake. I can’t really see her taking confidential files into a coffee shop, let alone forgetting to check that she has them when she leaves. She’s far too thorough and organised a person to do that – and too professional as a police officer. They could have had another member of her team leave a file lying around with much the same result – Cass would feel responsible as the team leader of the person who’d done it. Instead, the writers have her do something completely out of character to move the plot along. It’s lazy writing, it’s annoying. And the character doesn’t really deserve that.
Unforgotten, especially the first two seasons, is often proof that the journey matters more than the destination.
Getting to the ending is an engaging, compelling process of watching Cass and Sunny slowly peel back the layers of lies and deceits that have built up over the years. And honestly, I could watch them do that all day. But the issue is, the payoff at the end is sometime a bit underwhelming. Season 1 went with a bit of a narrative cheat. Season 2 went with one of my least favourite cheats of all.
Mega spoiler warnings here since I’m basically going to give away the endings.
Looked away yet? You’ve been warned…
Season 1’s killer was eventually revealed to be dementia-suffering Claire Slater (played by Gemma Jones, who actually replaced Nicola Walker on two seasons of Spooks). The motive was that she was killing her closeted husband’s gay lovers during periods of post-partum depression, which firstly seemed a little too far-fetched to be as hard-hitting as I think it was meant to be. But, worse, Claire was never one of the suspects. She was the wife of one of them. As a way of fooling the audience, this irritates me because, well, it’s a bit lazy. The audience never has a chance to guess because the real killer is squirelled off to one side, ready to be conveniently revealed at a surprising time. If, as a writer, you plan on making the real killer someone connected to the enquiry but not previously suspected, you need to make sure you’ve dropped a couple of hints here and there, but the only hint we had about Claire was a garbled thing she said to Cass about cleaning clothes, which Cass thought related to getting blood out of them.
Season 2… I suspect that the creative process for this season started with ‘What if we combined Strangers on a Train with Murder on the Orient Express?’ and worked back from there, because the final solution neatly combines them all. The revelation that Colin Osborne (Mark Bonnar), Sara Mahmoud (Badria Timimi) and Marion Kelsey (Rosie Cavaliero) all knew each other was a bombshell… but the eventual reveal that they’d each conspired to murder someone who’d abused one of the others, at a time when the other was out of the country and so had an alibi, is of course the exact plot of Strangers on a Train, combined with, ‘They all did it,’ which to be clear is my least favourite resolution to any story. It felt like the writers tried to be too clever by half here, to the point that I can’t actually remember who actually killed the particular victim of that series. The victim had previously repeatedly drugged and raped Sara Mahmoud as a teenager, and I think Marion Kelsey was the eventual killer, with Osborne killing her abusive father and Mahmoud killing his abusive Scout leader, but I could have those all wrong. It felt a bit messy, it felt a bit too clever by half, and like season 1 it felt like it was trying to be hard-hitting but missed the mark by just seeming a bit far-fetched.
Now, I will say that the ending of season 3 was much better. This time the writers picked a suspect and brought the investigation round onto him at the end, but leave enough of a trail to keep you guessing until going into the final episode. The penultimate episode ends with the arrest of the apparently nice and mild-mannered Dr Tim Finch after Cass and Sunny uncover apparently damning evidence, but we’ve seen in the past that Tim clears up behind fellow suspect Chris Lowe, both in the past and during the series, and I felt like that could be a final twist. The actual twist caught me off-guard, and allowed for some chillingly well-acted final interview scenes between Cass and Finch. And you could look back and see exactly how Finch’s double-life had been set up since episode 1. This series ended up on a satisfying, well-constructed note, it’s just a pity seasons 1 and 2 couldn’t have done the same.
And, as an aside, the eventual reveals about Finch have a real authentic ring to them. Many serial killers are identified after they’re caught for one murder, and the police then realise that they can be linked to others.
You’ll like this if…
You like slow-burning crime dramas that take their time to twist through veneers of secrets and lies, and take their time to invest you in the lives of their suspects and detectives.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, please check out some of the others, or, alternatively, some of the crime-related blog posts. Or maybe even some of my own short stories. Shameless plugs below…
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