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Women who save others fight to save themselves in a story line that brings grace, depth to TV dramas today | COMMENTARY

Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) and Sunil "Sunny" Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) in "Unforgotten," which returns for its fourth season Sunday on PBS. Photo/ Matt Frost/Mainstreet Pictures LTD
Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) and Sunil "Sunny" Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) in "Unforgotten," which returns for its fourth season Sunday on PBS. Photo/ Matt Frost/Mainstreet Pictures LTD (Matt Frost)

She has a father who is slipping into dementia and has written her and her sons out of his will. Her 21-year-old son won’t leave the nest despite her threats to pour a bucket of water over him to get him out of bed. And after almost three decades as a police detective, she is feeling burned out to the point of a nervous breakdown. And, oh yeah, she just found out from her boss that despite her health, she won’t get a full pension unless she returns to the job and works three more months to make it a full 30 years.

Say hello to DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker), chief of a London-based cold case unit in the drama “Unforgotten.” The series starts its fourth season Sunday on PBS’ “Masterpiece,” and it is even more compelling than the three British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award- winning seasons that preceded it because of the complicated issues, heightened tensions, stress and emotional pain in Stuart’s personal life. This strong, sure-handed team leader is now struggling just to keep it together in the six episodes airing on successive Sundays on PBS.

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Watching an embattled Stuart doing her best to navigate several major life passages as she leads a team of investigators in a highly complicated murder case that dates back to 1989, I was struck by the thematic similarity to other dramas I had liked a lot this season. Call it: women who save others while trying to save themselves.

The most recent example is HBO’s “Mare of Easttown,” which starred Kate Winslet as a former high school sports hero who is now a detective in her Rust Belt hometown. Her father and son both committed suicide. She describes her life as a “(expletive) show.” And that’s before it really goes south.

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Winslet’s Mare Sheehan finds and helps rescue a young woman who had been abducted and held captive. Then she goes on to solve the murder of another young woman in Easttown, which formed the central story line of the limited series.

Queen Latifah plays a similar role as Robyn McCall in the hit CBS drama “The Equalizer” that debuted in February. A former CIA agent, McCall now helps people who have nowhere else to turn, most often young women. McCall is still dealing with PTSD-like issues from her past in the agency.

And though she is not a crime solver like the others, Nicole Kidman’s Grace Fraser goes from helping others in her role as therapist in HBO’s “The Undoing” to trying desperately to hold her own life together after she and her husband become suspects in the murder of woman with whom he was having an affair.

I am not saying this theme is new. Mariska Hargitay’s Detective Olivia Benson has been dealing with the psychological fallout of solving sex crimes and helping victims longer than anyone on American network TV with her 22-year run on NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU.”

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The archetype for DCI Stuart is Helen Mirren’s DCI Jane Tennison on the PBS drama “Prime Suspect,” which aired seven seasons between 1991 and 2006. I couldn’t help thinking of Tennison as I watched Stuart struggle with retirement issues in the season that starts Sunday. Tennison tried to cope with the psychological fallout of her job by drinking. By the time of her retirement, she could no longer hide her alcoholism. They both suffered from depression and had serious anger issues.

In the season opener, Stuart asks her boyfriend if she seems angry all the time.

“Not all the time, no,” he says carefully after thinking about it for a second.

Stuart ended last season by tracking down a serial killer who raped and murdered adolescent girls in the past and was living as a respected psychotherapist before she brought him to justice. Stuart became deeply involved with the families of two of his victims. The serial killer, Dr. Tim Finch (Alex Jennings), uses Stuart’s empathy for the dead girls and their families as a weapon in their interrogation sessions. Walker’s performance is so focused and intense that you can almost feel Stuart’s struggle in your own nerve endings as she absorbs the pain of what he is saying about his victims while trying to maintain control of the conversation. By the end of the episode, there is almost nothing left in Stuart’s emotional tank except pain.

That is one of the things I like best about this series: It goes inside the stories of each of the victims and their families. We see the victims through the eyes of Stuart and her steady second in command, DI Sunil “Sunny” Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar).

Many British and American crime dramas and mysteries treat victims as little more than a prop — the thing that is found at the start of an episode that sets the investigation in motion. Not “Unforgotten.” It always gives a sense of who the victim was and what she or he was like when alive. But most of all, it explores the pain of survivors and shows how the unsolved disappearance or murder can haunt and shape the lives of families for multiple generations.

Both “Unforgotten” and “Mare of Easttown” have made me notice news stories on girls disappearing and wonder why so little follow-up attention is paid to them in cities like Baltimore. Maybe it is because we have so much crime that local newscasts can’t keep up. But I wonder if it is perhaps a reflection of what we do — and do not — value as a society. Detectives like Stuart and Sheehan value such lives in a way they have rarely been valued on TV.

The new season starts with the discovery of a headless corpse that might have been in a freezer for 30 years. How’s that for a cold case? Stuart and Khan narrow their search for the killer to four persons who all participated in a police training program in 1989. It’s a challenging and interesting case for viewers who like mysteries and dogged police work.

But the real pleasure this season is in following Stuart’s journey. Forced off a medical leave of absence and back to work by a retirement ruling denying her full retirement benefits, she is tired, angry and depressed. And yet, she appears to have the professional tools needed to still get the job done.

Ten minutes into the opening episode, we already know the terrific toll getting the job done for almost 30 years has taken on her personal life. The question is how much more can she take at a particularly vulnerable time when every bone in her body tells her she should be retired.

Women who are now of retirement age were among the first generation of what was called the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s and ‘70s. They fought and earned the right to be the person in charge in the workplace. The fourth season of “Unforgotten” explores the personal price one of them paid in that struggle.

Season 4 of “Unforgotten” begins at 9 p.m. Sunday on Maryland Public Television (MPT).

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter:@davidzurawik.

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