I guess a better title for this would be “What I’ve Watched,” since I’ve finished everything I’m writing about, but here we are, so there.
Streaming on AMC+
I originally watched this series (which, at present consists of two six-episode seasons) years ago—it first aired in 2014 and 2016 on British TV. A third season is coming soon on the Beeb (BBC) and has supposedly been delayed for so long so that Ryan, the grandson of lead character police Sgt. Catherine Cawood, could age in real time to be a teenager (a neat trick that Line of Duty did with its own “bastard Ryan,” who became a bent copper). Ryan is central to the plot of the show, which concerns two sisters, Catherine (played by Sarah Lancashire) and Clare (Siobhan Finnerman) and their complicated lives in a small city in Northern England. Lancashire is amazing, and such a badass as Sgt. Cawood; she’s an unlikely action hero. (I’d say she takes no prisoners, but she does, repeatedly.) The series is written (and sometimes directed) by Sally Wainwright (Gentleman Jack, Scott & Bailey), and the writing is some of the best I’ve ever seen on any TV show on either side of the pond. Finnerman’s Clare is fighting her own demons, including being both an alcoholic and a former heroin addict. Both sisters are trying their best to raise young Ryan, left behind by Cawood’s daughter, a suicide victim. Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), recently released from prison, tries to form some kind of relationship with his son, Ryan, but Cawood holds onto the idea that Royce raped her daughter and caused her to commit suicide after giving birth to her son. Amongst all of this family drama, (in the first season) is a kidnapping plot and the growing realization that Royce is truly evil incarnate. The second season ups the ante a bit with a new addition to the police staff and more evil from Royce as he manipulates a mousy accountant (who he is “engaged” to while back in prison) to reach out and insinuate herself into Ryan’s life and make Cawood’s a living hell. And Happy Valley is anything but, with an assortment of small-time criminals, drug lords, human traffickers, and other assorted scum that Sgt. Cawood has to deal with, along with misogynistic co-workers and bosses. The acting and writing are superb and the entire show is absolutely gripping. I can’t wait for season three, so bring it on, AMC+!
House of the Dragon
Streaming on HBO Max
I enjoyed House of the Dragon, the Game of Thrones prequel series that chronicles the rise of the House Targaryen 200 years before the original show. I liked the opening and closing episodes the best … the middle four or five episodes were somewhat “meh” to me. I also liked the original casting of the two female leads, who—due to a ten-year time jump in episode five—are recast. And yes, there’s blood, incest, and dragons—lots and lots of dragons—in traditional GoT fashion. I was in England when episodes 2, 3, and 4 debuted, so coming back to play catch-up (including the newest episode 5 that debuted the night after I returned), seemed a bit of a chore. Some of the special effects are a little hokey: While the dragons all look great and each have definite personalities, some of the wide shots with characters riding them look like little LEGO figures perched atop them. And of course there’s the traditional GoT lighting scheme, which is dark, Dark, DARK (they didn’t have electric lights then, don’t you know?) and has inspired much online kvetching and moaning. (At one point a character dies in a darkened room and I was like, “Who the hell just died?” I had to go online to find out.) Paddy Constantine, Matt Smith, and Rhys Ifan are all great, and I’ll watch season two when it comes out, probably at least two years from now.
Streaming on BritBox
This new Scottish copper series is based on the novels by Britain’s modern-day Agatha Christie, Val McDermid. The thriller doyenne—who calls her novels “Tartan Noir”— features newcomer Karen Pirie, a young detective sergeant who is promoted to a cold case strike force (well, there’s three of them at least) investigating the murder of a young barmaid twenty years ago. The case is reopened due to a popular true crime podcast. (The original McDermid novel on which this season is based, The Distant Echo, was published in 2003, long before true crime podcasts were a thing, so obviously this has been updated.)
I wasn’t sold on this show at first, especially after watching the first episode, but I persevered and enjoyed episode two and the third and final one sealed the deal for me. Lauren Lyle plays Pirie and her diminutive size and youthful looks (think more Nancy Drew than Kate Fleming; the show is produced by the same company that does Line of Duty, though) and unusual wardrobe (sweater vests, baggie pants, sensible shoes, and an omnipresent fannypack) make the appearance of her character very deceptive. And that realization made me think of one other TV series featuring a detective who was not what they seemed to be: Columbo. Pirie is dedicated to finding the answers and the true culprit in this murder, and the final episode—where she confronts the killer in classic Columbo fashion—won me over and just confirmed my feelings about the character and the show. I’m ready for season two, please (fannypacks optional).
Streaming on BritBox
This intense six-episode series stars David Morrissey (The Governor on The Walking Dead, when the show was watchable) as a small town detective investigating two murders that harken back to the British miners strikes in the 1980s, a topic that still divides the town thirty years later. Also starring Lesley Manville as a woman estranged from her sister due to family differences over the strike, this is supposedly based on a true story. A just married young couple is also drawn into the case when a murder hits home for them, involving a person targeted by the bow-and-arrow toting killer. Morrissey’s character is drawn back together with a London Metropolitan police officer who, back in the day, was involved in policing the miners strikes, opening up more old wounds and revealing that undercover officers were installed in the community to keep watch and may still be living there, having established lives and families. It all comes together for an incredibly engrossing storyline that I really enjoyed. This has been renewed for a second series.
The Undeclared War
Streaming on Peacock
If this series seems a little familiar, it may be because it involves the high-level British COBRA committee, tasked with solving national disasters, and you may have seen or heard of that British mini-series which aired for two seasons on Masterpiece on PBS. This one involves a cyber-attack and a young British Asian woman who is appointed to a kind of summer internship as a coder with the government’s cyber security bureau. She uncovers a secondary threat within the original one, which may or may not mask even more attacks. The show is suspenseful and well-done; the producers and writers have come up with an original way to show coders investigating line after line of code, thus negating the need to have people staring at computer screens forever. Simon Pegg sort of stars, but the real star is Hannah Khalique-Brown as the young coder. I found this to be enjoyable and compelling (and a little bit scary in a “this could happen” way, just like COBRA), but I also found the ending to be really abrupt and a tad disconcerting. I’m not sure if this is a one-and-done or a second season is coming.
Streaming on Apple TV+
I absolutely loved this six-episode series featuring Gary Oldman as dissolute British MI5 agent Jackson Lamb, who oversees a band of misfit agents sent down for mistakes they made in operations. Oldman is wonderful as the cynical, caustic old prick who has his own secrets, but knows all the ins and outs of this dirty spy business as he goes head to head with his old workmate Diane Taverner, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. There’s a lot of secrets, twists and turns, and a surprising amount of humor. Only drawback is Olivia Cooke as a young agent who seemingly leaves in the middle of the series (probably to go star in House of the Dragon). The new season debuts on Apple TV+ on December 2, and I can’t wait.
Streaming on Peacock
I was so looking forward to this new series starring Line of Duty’s Vicky McClure and executive produced by LoD show runner and creator Jed Mercurio … and I was so disappointed. McClure plays another Brit copper, Lana Washington, a bomb disposal officer working for the London Metropolitan Police. It’s a convoluted six-episode series with an extremely dour McClure trying to defuse a bomb plot that threatens all of London. To be honest, this show has faded so quickly from my memory that I don’t even remember the details of the plot, other than there were bombs, including the show itself, as far as I’m concerned. I think McClure is wonderful, but if she’s going to be a cop, I want her to be Kate Fleming on Line of Duty.