Marinating in the post- binge annoyance and mild panic that happen when a beloved show ends (How ever will I fill my days?), I found Shetland on Netflix. Originally a BBC adaptation of Ann Cleeves’ atmospheric books, the show is thumbnailed on Netflix’s Crime lineup with a ruggedly handsome man straddling a suitably bleak landscape. One look at the preview and you’re in.
The Shetland isles are a group of subarctic peaty landforms in the North Atlantic, geographically Scottish but moored culturally to a Viking past and firm in their Nordic allegiances in the present. From the show you wouldn’t know that the isles are known for such warm and fuzzy things as adorable miniature horses, nesting puffins and a knitting festival called Wool Week that announces new patterns every year. No. Any notions of sunny pastorality are put to rest by the inclement weather and the ocean slamming its high green cliffs in eternal anger as the protagonists reel from unspeakable crimes. The setting may be Scottish, but Shetland qualifies as Nordic noir. ‘Three factors underpin the success of Nordic crime fiction’, writes The Economist on the rise and continuing popularity of the Nordic detective novel, ‘language, heroes and setting.’ The language and the heroes mirror each other- emotionally spare, intolerant of verbiage or euphemism. I believe it’s the setting that merits close examination- not just in the sense of landscape but also the social anxieties that feed the dark underbelly of an affluent welfare state. With their thrust on progressive and egalitarian values and futuristic, hyper- modern lifestyles, these prosperous countries are an interesting study in contrasts, boasting the world’s happiest schoolchildren on the one hand and soaring rates of suicide on the other. What happens when someone- a rebel, an outsider, a curious bystander- decides to look closely at these dissonances, ask too many questions? The murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall at the hands of Danish billionaire Peter Madsen could well be the plot of a TV drama were it not tragically real.
And then sometimes you just want to watch a hot emotionally unavailable cop crack a murder at the risk of destroying everything he loves.
Still, Shetland is no standard police procedural. The tedium of bureaucratic detail is never allowed to overwhelm the relationships. Shetland has a population of about 600 and everyone knows everyone, making community the beating heart of the show. DI Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall) is a grieving widower whose unsettlingly level gaze, clenched jaw and gruff generosity you want endlessly more of. Unlike the maladjusted walking implosions that anchor Nordic noir mysteries, Perez is deeply integrated with his community and radiates warmth and tender-heartedness in waves. He’s parenting the biological child of his wife and her ex- husband Duncan Hunter, a local businessman and well- known casanova who also happens to be his best friend. Some of the best scenes on the show feature domestic banter between Jimmy and Duncan as they struggle with their unusual situation. Their dynamic remains my favourite thing about the show. It’s a wonder more women aren’t dropping their pants around Jimmy Perez than they do. The only other crimesolver I’ve seen do this- be a massive softie, be willing to believe the best in people despite years of brokenness- is one legged military vet Cormoran Strike of Robert Galbraith’s (JK Rowling’s) Strike novels. Haven’t checked the nethernets but I’m pretty certain there’s a cult fanbase worshipping Henshall’s delivery of the word okay. In a linguistic inversion of the synonym, such as the Eskimos’ many words for snow, Perez’s okay could mean one of many things- agreement, confusion, solidarity, scepticism, negotiation, surrender. It is always said with poker -faced directness, and SV and I have great fun pausing and rewinding to catch the exact inflection so we can take a guess.
The show handles issues like rape, racism and xenophobia and the fraught coming out of gay young adults with insight and responsibility, steering clear of shoehorning any morality play or self- righteousness into its run time. My second favorite character on the show, DS Alison MacIntosh ‘Tosh’ (Alison O’Donnell), (a character not written by Cleeves, though she’s gone on record to say she wish she was) starts out mouthy and easily ruffled, prone to colloquial clapbacks. Perez is an excellent boss- exacting and accommodating at the right times- and models the ideal workplace, helping her grow in confidence and stature. Watch the show if only to see what a truly equal, compassionate workplace looks like.
The title score is an achingly beautiful wail of bagpipes and other local instruments, one of the best I’ve heard on television. Fun fact- Scottish composer John Lunn’s also done the score for another beloved British drama- Downton Abbey. I’ve downloaded the Shetland title track (the extended version) on Apple Music and will play it in the car on long, hot rides through the city so I can pretend I’m somewhere cold and far away.
‘The cold, dark climate, where doors are bolted and curtains drawn provides a perfect setting for crime writing’, says The Economist, explaining why the surreally beautiful, isolated Nordic landscape lends itself so well to crime. ‘The nights are long, the liquor hard, the people.. “brought up to hide their feelings” and hold on to their secrets. If you are driving through Norway at dusk and see a farmhouse with its lights on and its doors open, do not stop.. you are as likely to be greeted by a crime scene as a warm welcome.’ Watch Shetland for that horrible lurch in your stomach even as your eyes feast on its sweeping, spartan beauty. It’s going to be *insert Jimmy Perez inflection* okay.