There’s a certain expectation that comes with modern crime dramas from the British isles. Wind, rain, steely protagonists, class issues, those bright black and yellow-checked police vests. For fans of the genre, many of these series are both enjoyable and interchangeable. There’s a formula and familiarity to them in the same way there is watching any given Law and Order in the U.S. They’re often short, dark, twisty, and feature an older, recognizable lead with a young, up-and-coming partner. Watching a British crime show is to always come away with a certain satisfaction, even if it doesn’t break new ground.
Bloodlands, a four-episode drama premiering in the U.S. on Acorn TV, leans hard into these tropes to start. But the series, created by Chris Brandon, does at least introduce a different setting: North Ireland, which comes with a lot of historical baggage. Like the great crime series Unforgotten, Bloodlands’ main crime story hinges on a present-day event (in this case, a kidnapping) that reopens a cold case. However, there is a heavy reluctance to revisit this particular cold case by the police force, because it dates back to the end of The Troubles and the brokerage of a peace agreement.
Explaining the context of these events, the cases, and how they relate both to the police force and to Detective Chief Inspector Tom Brannick (James Nesbitt) means that Bloodlands also goes hard on exposition (and yes, subtitles are a must). There is a lot of telling and not showing in the first two episodes made available for review, and a hefty dose of “both sides-ism” regarding the history of Northern Ireland’s bloody past. It restricts the forward momentum of the story, which settles early-on into a kind of sleepy patter of expected crime beats—despite director Pete Travis’ liberal use of a shaky cam to inject a little more life into the story.
The personal connection that Brannick has to the current kidnapping—which happens to be of an ex-IRA leader—is that the MO of the perpetrator matches that of an assassin in 1998 the police dubbed “Goliath.” Someone who worked within the police force itself, Goliath executed members on both sides of the Troubles who they thought were a risk to the peace talks, all of which was covered up. One of Goliath’s victims was Brannick’s wife, who worked in intelligence, leaving him as a single father to a daughter who is now in med school. Typical of such stories, everyone Brannick and his daughter come into contact with now seem to have some connection to the old case and are mired in their own secrets, with his daughter becoming a target once he appears to get too close to the truth.
James Nesbitt anchors the series in the well-worn role of no-nonsense DCI on a dogged mission to uncover the truth about what happened to his wife, while Charlene McKenna’s Detective Sergeant McGovern is a steady presence who is driven by her desire to do right by the victims’ families. The cast is strong, including some brief, welcome appearances from Ian McElhinney, Derry Girls’ Kathy Kiera Clarke, and Michael Smiley. But they aren’t given much to do, as character development is stymied by big blocks of exposition. The dynamic between Brannick and McKenna isn’t revolutionary nor particularly memorable; similarly, despite occasional respites to the countryside, the gritty and dark representation of Belfast is one that just feels generically depressing.
That all has the potential to change, though, thanks to a twist near the end of the second episode. But without seeing the final hours of the series, it’s hard to know how that will land (or even if it will stick). One also wonders if it’s too little, too late. Bloodlands is ultimately a serviceable crime drama with an interesting and complicated story to tell, but unfortunately it’s too focused on plotting to make us care deeply about the characters involved.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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