True crime stories are having a pop culture moment all over the world. Thanks to the combination of dreary weather and online streaming, crime buffs in North America have been spending many cozy hours on the couch with their friend Netflix, a media service where British-made crime series rule. I can vouch for the following five series. Though not necessarily based on real crimes, they’re gripping enough to feel like the real thing.
Dark Deeds in a Small Town
The fictional seaside town of Broadchurch in Dorset is the setting for some very strange goings-on. Now on its third (and apparently final) season, the series features great acting from David Tennant and Olivia Colman as detectives and friends who have each other’s backs on and off the job. In the first two seasons, the show deconstructed a child’s murder investigation and its impact on residents. The third season chronicles a different crime but sticks with the details of daily life in a sleepy cobblestoned town where everyone knows everyone else’s business.
The Out Islander
You could watch Shetland solely for the accents and the hunky presence of Douglas Henshall as Inspector Jimmy Perez. Based on the novels of British crime writer Ann Cleeves, the series makes the most of its setting amid the spectacular scenery of the Shetland Islands and coastal Scotland. Perez’s younger female sidekick, Tosh, has an often-incomprehensible regional brogue, but she’s just as steadfast, courageous and likable as her boss. Together, they get the job done, but unlike many other crime fighting heroes, they seem undamaged by all the mayhem, and they’re never blind to the emotional nuances of the violence around them.
Cry Me a River
For pure romance, nothing tops River, a six-part series that takes liberties with what’s real and what’s not. A traumatized and stressed senior detective (Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard) tries to carry on after the on-the-job murder of her work partner (and more?), played by the omnipresent-for-good-reason Nicola Walker. The partners can’t seem to quit each other, even when separated by life and death. The season one theme song — Tina Charles’ 1976 hit I Love to Love — is used repeatedly to tear-inducing effect. The series is heartbreaking, yet gripping.
Wallander plays on the British obsession with all things Scandinavian; the iconoclastic detective of the title (played by Kenneth Branagh) is based on the prickly main character of Swedish author Henning Mankell’s best-selling crime novels. The character’s strong individuality is a hallmark of crime fiction as mastered by the British for film and television. As with the other series on this list, all the police procedural content is accurate, but it’s the fully realized characters and great acting that steal the limelight.
It’s Elementary, My Dear Watson
If most of the series on this list wear realism as a badge of honor, Sherlock honors the past glories of great British literature while simultaneously grappling with James Bondian fantasies of an ultra-intelligent future. With sterling production values, great writing and some of today’s best acting talent — Benedict Cumberbatch in the junkie-genius title role and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson — this series is a pinnacle of the genre.