“Shetland is focused on one thing, and one thing only—the story. I was drawn right into the isolation, the fog, and the secrets of this Scottish crime-noir.”
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-3
Creator: Ann Cleeves 👩🏼🇬🇧
Directors: Jan Matthys 👨🏼🇧🇪 (3 eps), Thaddeus O’Sullivan 👨🏼🇮🇪 (3 eps), Peter Hoar 👨🏼🇬🇧 (2 eps), and others (3 👨🏼🇬🇧)
Writers: Ann Cleeves 👩🏼🇬🇧 (original story), David Kane 👨🏼🇬🇧 (6 eps), Gaby Chiappe 👩🏼🇬🇧 (5 eps), and others (3 👨🏼🇬🇧)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Shetland is a moody crime drama that takes place on Shetland Islands, north of the Scottish mainland with ties to Scandinavian and Viking culture. The landscapes are stunning while the show leverages the simple, yet enduring power of storytelling to draw you into what would otherwise be Yet Another Crime Serial.
For Anglophiles and/or fans of film noir, this is a must-watch. Be sure to buckle in though; Shetland demands your full attention and—in the case of this unrefined American—subtitles in order to understand the thick, Scottish lilts and Gaelic turns of phrases that provide the aural texture to this atmospheric drama.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Despite being penned by a female author, Shetland favors tried-and-true gender formulas such as the installment of Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall) as the clear alpha male. For example, a habit of his is never saying “goodbye” or otherwise signing off before ending phone calls. He simply hangs up on people when he’s finished listening to them. A small detail, but indicative of how the show likes to portray his authority through dialogue and body language. Luckily, they also soften him through a close relationship with his daughter, Cassie, as he is forced to co-parent with Cassie’s biological father, incurring amusing and sometimes tender scenes of a nontraditional family.
As for the women, the recurring characters are wonderful and complex. I adore DS McIntosh (played by Alison O’Donnell), or “Tosh,” as she’s known on the show. She’s young, relatable, and clever, but falls firmly subordinate to DI Perez. It can get frustrating how she is always looking to him for cues, needing his approval before doing her job. This would be a great opportunity for character growth if writers can manage to develop her more in season 4. Meanwhile, Perez’s boss Rhona (played by Julie Graham) is tough and plays devil’s advocate to his hunches, but despite her superior rank they essentially function as equals.
Pertinent to this category is the handling of a rape case towards the end of Season 3. The show creators do their homework and are respectful of such a loaded topic. They make the smart move of having a female scriptwriter for the episode, which helps maintain the right perspective despite a male director. Yet there was almost too much focus on rape; multiple scenes traverse the mental and emotional scars victims of sexual assault suffer from. Perhaps the writers got caught up in trying to demonstrate their research, loading various stages of coping upon the shoulders of one actress in particular, who gamely shakes, cries, and looks generally traumatized for the better part of a laborious episode.
In short, their handling of rape is sensitive and educational, assuming that the viewer is a newcomer to the trauma of sexual assault. Maybe this is the perfect way to script a rape case for a general audience. But I personally found myself recoiling from the story arc, much preferring more creative approaches as seen in shows like Harlots, which treats rape as an atrocity yet fact of life. Which, unfortunately, it still is—whether it’s the 18th century backdrop to Harlots or 2017 today, the numbers remain harrowing. But in Harlots the women are shown thriving in their raunchy, dangerous, and fit-to-bursting lives. The trauma is obviously there, occasionally coming to the fore in violent bursts, but the show does not linger on it.
I suppose it really just comes down to knowing your audience. Maybe the Shetland viewership benefits from a more explanatory route than a female-targeted show like Harlots.
Last note on Gender, there are 5 female deaths, 2 sexual assaults against women, and 7 male deaths across Shetland seasons 1-3. Compared to reality, the share of homicide victims in Scotland skews heavily male—in 2014-15 there were 45 male to 15 female victims, or a ratio of 3 to 1. By that metric, Shetland should have seen 15 male homicides, not 7. So why do we consistently see an overrepresentation of female victims in media, even among stories written by women?
In 2011, just 1.5% of the Shetland population was non-white (1% Asian and 0.5% other). With that in mind, the number of characters of color who appear on Shetland is impressive. However, the flatness of their roles reveals how difficult it is to write outside of one’s life experience. Remember: despite being fairly international, with writers and directors hailing from Scotland, England, Belgium, or Ireland, all of them are white.
A quick rundown of all the POC who appear on Shetland (spoilers ahead). First, the not-great:
Hattie, an East Asian archaeologist, appears for two episodes and then is murdered.
Hugo, a black teacher, is under investigation for murder. He is described as a “spineless tosser” by Tosh and portrayed as pretentious and morally ambiguous.
Calvin, a South Asian lawyer, is a slimy villain who is power-hungry and then is murdered.
And the inoffensive:
Gina, a mixed-race woman, has a short scene with Perez who interviews her about her stalker. Tiny role but portrayed without issue.
Willow, a biracial forensic scientist, plays Perez’s potential love interest. She’s great but flat, and only appears for 2 episodes.
Asha (played by amazing Archie Panjabi ❤️), a South Asian colleague, is Perez’s love interest in the third season. Her character has the potential to be awesome, so I REALLY hope she comes back for season 4 which would deepen her unexplored background. Otherwise, this will just be another disappointing love interest who only lasts one story arc.
Edison, a black Brazilian student dating Perez’s daughter, is flat but without issue.
On the plus side, all the POC except Edison play Brits, which displays an understanding of identity and how ethnicity and nationality can be—and often are—two separate things.
Across 14 episodes, a few touch on LGBTQ characters. Most notably, Perez’s boss Rhona is dating another highly successful, career-oriented woman who lives in Glasgow. This is only mentioned in the third season, but the scenes they do share are positive and layered.
Additionally, one of the murder investigations runs into a subplot that hints at two teenage boys exploring their sexuality together. The discussion of the issue is gruff and full of euphemisms by older men. It makes it all the more refreshing when, at the end of all this tiptoeing around the topic, Perez’s daughter Cassie says point-blank: “I know he’s gay. So what?”
The above nods are appreciated, but overall Shetland refrains from exploring LGBTQ characters in depth.
Bonus for Age: +0.25
Shetland features a robust number of older people in all kinds of secondary and support roles, perhaps to reflect reality; in 2015, almost 22% of the Shetland Island population was between the ages of 45-59 and over a quarter were 60 or older. Compare that to the United States in the same year, where 20% of the population was between the ages of 45-59 and just over a fifth were 60 or older.
Mediaversity Grade: B- 3.69/5
Shetland is focused on one thing, and one thing only—the story. Yes, it tries to paint respectful pictures of women. Yes, there is a concerted effort to hire actors of color for a real-world setting that is 98.5% white. But in both cases, character development is largely eschewed for all but the hero, DI Jimmy Perez. He consumes the series and his posse is just that, a ragtag posse that helps him solve crimes.
And you know what? It works. I was drawn right into its isolation, its fog, and its secrets. If the upcoming season of Shetland can manage to deliver a real character of color (and they’re on the cusp, with Asha) or to grow Tosh from a victimized rookie into a woman who can hold her own, then I’ll be singing its praises even more.
Season 4 is expected to premiere in the UK in December this year. In the meantime, catch up on Netflix. The cases are standalone anyway, so you can enjoy this beautiful and intriguing show without suffering cliffhangers.