Is there anything more dread-inducing than the weight of expectations when you have a new job and enormously big shoes to fill? Unforgotten, one of ITV’s most successful drama series is back with a new lead. DCI Jessica James is played by Sinéad Keenan (last seen briefly in Derry Girls). Her character and the show have a lot in common. Can they prove their worth?
Killing off Nicola Walker’s beloved DCI Cassie Stewart at the end of series four was a bold move. Most detective shows would have folded, but Unforgotten continues with a new sheriff in town and new partner for DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar, as adept at drama as he is at comedy).
We meet Jessie on the back-foot, reeling from an emotional bombshell, feeling unloved and unwanted at work and at home. She’s a difficult person to like, and an abrasive lead for the tight-knit team to butt up against. This is a brave but smart choice from writer Chris Lang. Cassie exhausted herself in service of their cold cases, and this directly contributed to her shocking death. At first glance Jessie is quite different. She’s no pushover and tells Sunny that she won’t be running the team like Cassie did. It’s always good to see a complex female lead on TV. Of course, women don’t have to be likeable or sympathetic just because they’re women. And DI James is, after all, the boss.
I bristled when Jessie said she saw no benefit in solving cold cases, believing that limited police resources are better spent “on murders that happen today”. While this may be true in the real world, that’ll be the moment when the Unforgotten audience boos like she’s a pantomime villain. The new boss is the subject of many eye rolls and knowing looks between Murray, Fran and Sunny when what the team will have to do is prove their worth.
The cold case in question is a corpse hidden in a Hammersmith chimney breast discovered, unpleasantly and without warning, during a renovation; not something that’s often covered in Phil and Kirstie’s Love It Or List It. Sunny’s first slightly silly hunch about a Victorian chimney sweep is way off the mark.
These are the remains of a small woman in a mid-century floral dress which was bought from a vintage shop. It’s not a 70 year old crime, as Jessie first suspects, so meets her new stringent requirements of the cases they take on. The victim’s family are likely still living, and, most importantly, so are the suspects.
This series, the accused are more far flung than ever before. There’s a British warehouse worker/ part-time Uber driver in Paris, a young couple who are drug addicts stealing to feed their habit, an elderly philanthropist with a terminal diagnosis running out of time, and a couple of restaurateurs with a successful business but an abusive relationship.
Dark themes are hinted at; grief and loss, addiction, missed opportunities and the little lies that we tell ourselves to make it through the day. It’s a lot of ground to cover in a six-part run, especially with the grief the team feels for Cassie front-and-centre, but at its best, Unforgotten never feels rushed.
Due to Jessie’s introduction we don’t spend nearly enough time in their company in this first episode. But these set-ups are always intriguing. We can be sure the five or so suspects are connected to the victim and each other in intricate and significant ways which our dogged team will slowly uncover. Watching how the pieces fit is always a deeply satisfying puzzle.
It’s not just Jessie coming off as brittle and difficult. Sunny is under far more pressure than he can cope with and neither of our leads are being honest about their emotions. There are quiet moments when Jessie and Sunny might connect but they never do. Are these hints of future awkwardness or a period they will eventually draw a line under? I wonder, how would the day have gone if Jessie’s family life wasn’t hanging by a thread?
Sunny is quietly grieving his partner and friend, still spending hours at Cassie’s graveside while pretending to partner Sal he’s delayed at work. Jessie may be struggling but at least she has her Mum to talk to. Sunny’s outburst in the final scene isn’t much when described on paper, or compared to other contemporary cop shows. He leaves his bosses’ office and kicks a few bathroom stall doors. But fans know this explosion is totally out of character. We’ve never seen sanguine Sunny so petulant and enraged.
It’s a brave choice to continue without your lead, and make a significant change nearly a decade after the show originally began. The bones of Unforgotten remain the same; the tight plotting, the lovely camera work, the haunting theme, and the realism that make it so good, but Cassie and Sunny’s partnership was a fundamental cornerstone.There’s a serious amount of goodwill that this stalwart series succeeds and I’ve got my fingers crossed.