The appeal of Unforgotten, an ITV crime series airing in the US on PBS, is how satisfyingly methodical it is. Created and written by Chris Lang, each season explores one “historical” crime over six episodes, with our beloved detectives doggedly working the case. With those detective’s personal lives only briefly touched upon, the seasons—with their long breaks in between—feel more like installments in an anthology. But what connects these stories even more than the good work done by DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) and DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaska) is the format: A body is found from a crime committed long ago, a disparate group of characters are introduced, and slowly all of these pieces come together to form a complete picture of what happened and who’s responsible. It’s compelling, well-plotted television.
“Well-plotted” may seem like damning with faint praise, but its importance really can’t be overstated, especially regarding a crime drama. Each hour is satisfying, ending with a cliffhanger, and it all wraps up with a complete picture of what happened by the finale (whether or not justice is ultimately served). One of the other interesting facets of the series is that because the crimes took place so long ago, most of the characters (though not always) are older, even elderly. It brings new challenges to the investigation, and also stirs up old feelings for those who lost a loved one. Further, the surfacing of the weight and guilt from those who perpetrated or had knowledge of the crime is engrossing to witness as it unfolds; here are people trying to live normal lives while harboring a dark truth, and watching them unravel (or their desperation in trying not to unravel) as the detectives close in makes for excellent drama.
Season 4, once again cozily directed by Andy Wilson, starts with this same basic conceit: A body is found in a freezer when items are being moved in a junk yard, but though the corpse is shockingly well-preserved, the discovery is particularly gruesome because it’s missing its head and hands. Cassie and Sunny are quickly able to link the body to a missing person from 1990, and intriguingly, to a car full of then-newly-minted police officers who were the last people to see him alive.
Much of Season 4 revolves around the corrupting influence of anger, both from those involved with the crime and Cassie herself, who is grieving her father’s sudden re-marriage and increasing hostility / memory issues. Compounding that, Unforgotten leans into the “one last job” trope as Cassie is desperate to retire but is just three months shy of her 30-year pension. She returns to her team tired and battered down, but mostly angry about everything. It doesn’t affect her precision as an investigator, though, and from the start she and Sunny and the others are right on the money in working through this latest case.
Unforgotten often touches on issues of race (which play out more prominently in this current season), as well as queer representation, class issues, and both normalizing the incorporation of characters with disabilities and understanding the frustrations their carers experience. Though it never dwells on these moments, it doesn’t treat them glibly, either. Like its commitment to showing the detectives doing the methodical work of the job, these elements are woven in as simple the every day experiences of ordinary people. There’s no grandstanding, no big emotional moments, but also no ham-fisted inclusions. If Unforgotten had a motto, it might simply be “getting on with it.” And yet it’s never cold; the series is perhaps surprisingly emotional given how swiftly it moves, which speaks volumes to the well-honed crafting of its scripts and performances.
The series will also be getting on with it for another season beyond this one, despite a big change that comes in the final episode. It’s the only time I’ve truly questioned Unforgotten’s pace and decision-making, as that twist threatens to seriously undermine the season and so much of what the show is about. But for now, Unforgotten mostly retains the core of its excellence: its storytelling, its compelling characters, its fascinating cases. It’s not flashy and it’s not out to change the world. But for crime show fans, there are few other series that so expertly and satisfyingly wrap you in a mystery as this one.
Unforgotten Season 4 premieres Sunday, July 11th on PBS. Seasons 1-3 are available to stream on Amazon Prime and PBS Passport.
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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