Unforgotten

Unforgotten airs Sunday at 9:00 pm
On your PBS station
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As reviewer Linda Holmes sees it –
Many mysteries start with a body and it’s how Unforgotten, airing Sundays on Masterpiece Mystery, begins, too. But in the first episode, the body is not just a body; it’s a skeleton discovered underneath the floor of an old building. Buried and decayed, with nothing to identify it initially, or even suggest how long it’s been there. The discovery is in danger of being dismissed as a hopelessly cold case. But detective chief inspector Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker), who’s sent out with her partner Sunil “Sunny” Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) to investigate, feels an obligation to pursue the case, even though it seems like everyone involved might be long dead.

At the same time, other stories begin to unfold. A friendly priest drives to work. An older man becomes frustrated with his wife, whose dementia is worsening. A woman mentors a student studying for his exams. A man accepts a new position of political power. There’s no indication that any of them know each other — or, really, could possibly know each other.

And still, DCI Stuart and DI Kahn struggle to identify the person who they come to believe has been under the floor of a building for decades.

Unforgotten does a lot of things right
A good mystery builds layers of complication, and surprises you, but it plays by the rules it sets. A well-crafted mystery doesn’t allow you to guess who did it, in the first ten minutes, but doesn’t make it seem pointless to try to solve the case in your mind.

The basic idea of Unforgotten is an interesting concept in its unique storyline, but it works well because Walker rarely raises her voice. Her determination is communicated through stillness, but her excitement when she learns something important animates her eyes. The forensics people who work with her, take great pride in thrilling her with what they’ve discovered. Walker is clever and patient. For her murder is murder whether it was committed within the last year or 25 years ago. The victims and their families deserve justice.

One of the things that distinguishes a mystery about cold cases is that it tells the stories of older people who are viewed as full, complicated humans with pasts, rather than grandparents or wise advisers. All older people were once young people, with secrets, dramas and sex lives. They can still have the unsettled identities television typically associates with being young. Here, the history of each person, all of their successes, disappointments and failures, is central to the story; reinforcing the idea that the victim would also have been an older person with regrets and achievements, had the murder not taken place.

Deep sadness runs through this mystery series
That’s to be expected with this subject. As Walker informs the boy’s mother (played by Francis Tomelty) that they have found the body of her son who has been missing for 39 years, the sense of loss is right at the surface as though his death happened yesterday. It’s not just the loss of her son, it’s lost possibility of all that she imagines he could have become. In Unforgotten, you get a more in-depth, yet varied look at people as distinct individuals. The harsh story line is tempered by hope, but not for everyone. There is no escaping your sins, but there is a chance at grace. Although it’s a sad outcome, the families of the victims do finally get closure and resolve.

Check local PBS listings starting Sunday night, and you, too, might be drawn in.

Linda Holmes writes and edits NPR’s entertainment and pop-culture blog, Monkey See. She has several elaborate theories involving pop culture and monkeys, all of which are available on request.

Photo courtesy of ITV

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