Unforgotten: Cold Case with a Soft Touch

Sanjeev Bhaskar and Nicola Walker star in the PBS Masterpiece series Unforgotten, now in its fourth season.

Among the fiction offerings from PBS Masterpiece, Unforgotten is one of its finest. Now in its fourth season (you can stream the previous three), Unforgotten features the cold-case team at Bishop Street Police Station, where a generously staffed crew of dedicated investigators unravels the “historical” unsolved homicides.

Each season opens with the unexpected discovery of human remains in an obscure location that has long kept a missing person, well, missing. The cold-case team attempts to determine the identity of the victim, and eventually, the perpetrator. But the passage of time since the crime was committed makes the challenge of discovery all the greater. Details are forgotten, evidence is unavailable. Witnesses have died.

Phaldut Sharma plays Ram Sidhu, a murder suspect and working detective in Unforgotten.

On the other hand, creator Chris Lang uses time as a luxury. Unlike one-hour crime dramas that identify and charge the offender before the closing credits, each of these six-episode seasons enjoys an unhurried pace in a gun-free, pensive tone. The focus is the single cold case involving several characters familiar to the victim or the perpetrator. Ultimately, the wealth of details reveals as much about human nature as about the crime.

The cold-case team: Sunny Khan and Cassie Stuart

Front and center, we get to know and love the superb investigative team leaders, Detective Chief Inspector Cassie Stuart and Detective Inspector Sunny Khan. Their sleuthing styles are so compatible they’re practically joined at the brain. Both are kind, compassionate people who rarely get testy—or “cross,” as they say in England. Sunny Khan, played by Sanjeev Bhaskar (Yesterday), is a gentle person and a good observer and interrogator. He addresses Cassie as “Guv,” an informal acknowledgement of her status as boss, which also confirms his comfort zone as Cassie’s subordinate. And collectively, the two detectives have enough inner radar to separate truth from lies.

Nicola Walker is DCI Cassie Stuart.

And now a word about the series star, Nicola Walker (Last Tango in Halifax). As DCI Cassie Stuart, Walker is a master of understatement who glues the episodes together. Cassie’s warm, unassuming presence makes her more about Cassie the person than her high-ranking authority. Her easy manner, sense of humor, and respectfulness make her a beloved friend, mother, and daughter. As team director, she verbally appreciates every clue her investigators uncover. And her good-cop persona inspires the trust that keeps her witnesses and suspects talking.

Susan Lynch plays Liz Baildon, current Chief Constable and murder suspect.

Cassie’s greatest virtue is her empathy, which is also her weakness. For three decades she has observed the senseless crimes that take lives and destroy victims’ families, tragedies she takes personally. And in police work, “personally” is a no-no. Involvement crosses the line and creates trauma. Emotional distance allows crime solvers to survive the routine exposure to the dark side of human nature. A fine theory. But can anyone observe only with detective eyes while remaining intact as a person? Eventually, it’s gotta back up on you. Which brings us to Season 4.

Andy Nyman plays businessman and murder suspect Dean Barton.

Season 4 is a new phase for Cassie, who returns to work after a leave of absence. Being three months short of her 30-year retirement package, she begrudgingly postpones retirement, stepping into the current investigation as though she’d never left. But as the case proceeds, Cassie asks Sunny if she’s been angry too often, which Sunny handles with the diplomacy that speaks volumes about their relationship. And Cassie confesses there’s a small part of her that needs to punish people. But she promises to keep it under control. And we’ll leave it there.

Liz White plays therapist and murder suspect Fiona Grayson.

Now that I’ve dragged you down, I’ll mention that Unforgotten is also highly entertaining. There is tasteful English humor. There are fleeting moments when Cassie and Sunny abandon shop talk for more personal topics, like Sunny’s fruitless struggle to comprehend the minds of his teenage daughters. This is the same man who can figure out which suspect is a criminal.

In addition, the series is ripe with British slang that spices up even mundane exchanges. If you don’t grasp the meaning through the context, switch on the captions and learn to speak British like a native. I leave you with these samples.

  1. They found the body in the boot. Yes, in England, a body could fit in a boot, which means the trunk of the car.
  2. We’ve been mates for donkey’s years . . . refers to two people who are longtime friends, no animals involved.
  3. There’s a copper at the door. Yes: copper = cop = policeman. Britain’s earliest law enforcement wore copper badges.
  4. That was bloody brilliant. Even on a crime show, bloody just means very. And bloody won’t sound so harsh when you consider the American alternative.
  5. Would you like a cuppa? In England it’s always teatime. And now here’s some extra credit:
  6. Question: Where were you Thursday morning? Answer: Meeting with the Mayor. We went to his. For a cuppa. Appropriate response: Nice alibi, well done, you.  A

Watch episodes on PBS or watch them online at PBS.org.