Shetland season 8 review: Jimmy who?
The BBC crime drama returns with a brand new lead detective – but does she hold her own?
This review is based on episode 1 only.
Jimmy who? Caledonian detective drama Shetland has returned to BBC One for season 8 with a new protagonist looking windswept on the bleakly beautiful archipelago. Douglas Henshall hung up his signature black peacoat last September after seven seasons as DI Jimmy Pérez and tonight, we got our first look at his replacement, who surely won over any viewers still pining for Henshall's careworn hero.
Ashley Jensen picked up the crime-cracking baton as Met detective Ruth Calder, arriving in the isles on the trail of a valuable but vulnerable witness to a gangland shooting. Yet, this wasn't a Death In Paradise or Doc Martin-style 'fish out of water' scenario. DI Calder was born and bred here, but escaped at the first opportunity.
"Pack your bags, you're going home," her boss ordered the eye-rollingly reluctant Calder. She clearly wasn't in the market for a McMinibreak.
Right from the off, this reset series felt thrillingly different. An eight-minute cold open showed how fugitive witness Ellen Quinn (Maisie Norma Seaton) stumbled upon the cold-blooded execution of a police informant and fled all the way north to the Aberdeen ferry. Who'll find Ellen first? The police, the hitmen or her powerful family, led by no-nonsense matriarch Grace Bain (Downton Abbey's Phyllis Logan on formidable form)?
Sighing, snapping and generally reverting to the sulky teenager she was when she left, Calder teamed up with Acting DI Alison "Tosh" McIntosh (Alison O’Donnell) to track down Ellen before the gangsters did. Sparks soon flew. Tosh had jurisdiction but Calder took charge. Both called the other "annoying". Grudging respect gradually developed. This fresh dynamic fizzed, recalling classic female duos like Cagney & Lacey or Scott & Bailey. Except neither of those pairings ever had to investigate a spate of sinister sheep slayings on the side.
The counterpoint to these uneasy police partners were the bickering contract killers – experienced Howell (Don Gilét) and volatile Nowak (Arnas Fedaravičius) – on a mission to recover a holdall of missing drug money and permanently silence Ellen in the process. There were not one but two brutal murders before the credits rolled. And that was just the human ones.
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The accomplished Jensen – a familiar face from Agatha Raisin, Ugly Betty, Catastrophe and Mayflies, as well as her collaborations with Ricky Gervais – hit the ground running. Her character arrived fully formed and well-rounded. Her expressive face revealed conflicted feelings about this enforced homecoming. The script wasn't afraid to make Calder prickly and unlikeable, with a tangled private life and troubled childhood.
She confronted ghosts from her past, including ex-boyfriend Cal (Guilt's Jamie Sives, always excellent) and estranged brother Alan (Steven Miller) – now the vicar at their late father's old church. Plenty of intrigue to unspool across the six-part series.
- Shetland star Ashley Jensen’s detective gets frosty welcome in teaser
- Shetland star explains Tosh and new detective's "unusual" dynamic
- Shetland's Alison O'Donnell on season 8: "It's a risk, it's a gamble"
There were also welcome flashes of wit. When Ellen fled barefoot, Calder called her "little Zola Budd". Her "walk of shame" after a night with Cal was neatly played. So was Nowak's endearing interest in puffins.
Many fans had backed longtime sidekick O'Donnell to step into her former mentor's shoes. Presumably, she wasn't deemed quite a big enough name. We saw a different side to Tosh as she forged a fragile partnership with the new arrival.
Sure, some viewers are bound to miss Pérez, but two women fronting the show feels sufficiently different. Replacing Henshall with another male lead would have been way more jarring.
With its brooding landscapes and slow-burning plots, the BAFTA-winning drama often feels like Scandi crime transported to the Highlands and islands. "Shetland’s the edge of the world," as one character put it.
Tosh pointed out that the lack of trees is what lends the place its unique feel. It’s a hauntingly atmospheric setting for a high-class police procedural. On this evidence, the distinctive drama is in safe hands.
From Taggart to Unforgotten, from Silent Witness to Death In Paradise, plenty of crime favourites have managed to change lead actors without losing their magic. Ashley Jensen's casting is a wee stroke of genius which might just give Shetland a whole new lease of life.
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