Bloodlands writer Chris Brandon has cited True Detective as an inspiration for his new Belfast noir series (BBC One, 9pm). But the comparison that comes to mind in a glum and convoluted opening episode is Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty.
That’s no coincidence as Mercurio is the producer of Bloodlands, which stars a reliably grizzled James Nesbitt as a PSNI officer dragged into a decades-old conspiracy connected to the Peace Process.
Line of Duty, and Mercurio’s other big hit, Bodyguard, are wildly popular. But they also contain more undulations than a fog-drenched boreen. In Bloodlands, the extra ingredient is an all-enveloping gloom, with Brandon portraying Northern Ireland as a place still dancing with the ghosts of the past and held captive by old enmities.
It’s grim as anything and not the best advertisement for a weekend break to Belfast (remember weekend breaks?). In that sense there are parallels with the BBC’s adaptation of Tana French’s Dublin Murders, which likewise misdiagnosed Ireland as a place drenched in despair.
The best thing Bloodlands has going for it is Nesbitt’s DCI Tom Brannick, who musters an impish irascibility amid the murk. He continues to do so even when Brannick’s unhappy past comes into focus as a car is pulled from Strangford Lough. The vehicle belongs to a missing haulage firm boss with IRA connections. Inside is a postcard of the Harland and Wolff cranes and a recording.
These clues suggest the man’s disappearance is connected to “Goliath”, a serial killer from long, long ago with a personal connection to Brannick. Named after one of the H&W cranes, Goliath spent the 1990s assassinating Republicans and Loyalists threatening the peace process. If nothing else, you have to admire their even-handedness.
What follows is essentially I Can’t Believe It’s Not Line of Duty, with an Ulster fry dished up on the side. Brannick’s superiors are implicated in the Goliath cover-up but he can at least rely on PSNI sidekick Niamh McGovern (Charlene McKenna). He himself has an additional motive for tracking down the killer, as Goliath bumped off Brannick’s security services wife in 1998.
Bloodlands is going out as BBC’s prime-time Sunday night drama and so is made with a British rather than an Irish audience in mind. This becomes obvious pretty quickly. We’re told, for instance, that “Catholics” don’t trust the police, with the missing ex-IRA man’s wife (Kathy Kiera Clarke) carrying on as if she’s beamed in from Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father. If the brush-strokes were any broader you could use them to hop from Larne to Stranraer.
Nesbitt has a flinty charisma as Brannick, especially when acting opposite Lisa Dwan, playing a helpful doctor and lecturer to Brannick’s daughter (Lola Petticrew) at Queens.
But those True Detective comparisons are spurious and not only because of the alarming lack of HP Lovecraft subtexts. Far from a prestige TV trawl through the Northern psychosphere, this is a zig-zagging copper caper straight from the House of Mercurio. Which means thrills, spills and a plot that’s hard to explain in detail without diagrams and footnotes.
A Northern Ireland setting certainly brings something new. And yet, it’s ultimately difficult to see Bloodlands as anything other than an appetite-whetter for the next season of Line of Duty.