It's perhaps tactless to broach such a delicate subject, but could it be British television is making a tad too many dramas about cops these days? This week offers a compelling case for the prosecution.
Tonight, ITV rolls out a new series of Vera. On Tuesday, BBC One launches Happy Valley, which will be six weeks in the company of Detective Sergeant Sarah Lancashire. And Monday sees not one but two new series devoted to boys variously in and out of blue, Prey and Hinterland, debuting at the same time. This isn't a criticism of any of these shows in particular. Prey has the best opening episode of any UK pulp-action TV so far this year. Hinterland is less engrossing, but noteworthy as another example of British television trying to ape Scandi-crime and give it a homeland twist. Happy Valley is an interesting mix of police procedural and female-centred realist drama. And Vera is always nice to fall asleep to. But still - couldn't they space them out a bit? And maybe make programmes about something else in between?
Shetland has not long finished, but fans of novelist Ann Cleeves haven't had to go too long without seeing her characters on screen, as Brenda Blethyn returns as the eerily empathetic Northumberland detective for a fourth series of the Mum's Gone To Solve A Murder hit. The first of four new outings, tonight's case is based on Cleeves's latest Vera Stanhope book, Harbour Street, and gets going when her sidekick, Joe Ashworth, and his little daughter Jessie discover the body of an old woman on a train, apparently stabbed to death in her seat during rush hour. With his daughter traumatised, Joe's taking it personally, and the case gradually stirs memories for Vera, too, as the trail leads to a dilapidated grey seaside town, where the locals are keen to keep their secrets secret.
Monday, April 28
9pm, STV/BBC Four
Set out in rolling Wales, Hinterland stars Richard Harrington, and is like a Welsh version of Shetland in exactly the way Shetland was a Scottish version of Wallander. Lots of location, some solid acting shading into gibbering hysteria for the climax, and every week a murder plot that recalls a hundred plots before but passes the time while your cocoa cools. When it comes to tickling your Nordic fancy, however, Hinterland scores one point over Shetland, in that it features some Welsh-language sequences complete with actual subtitles - meaning we're probably doomed to a series about slaughter amongst a tight-knit Gaelic community soon.
Prey similarly invokes the ghosts of crime dramas past. Yet, written by newcomer Chris Lunt and directed with a prowling eye by Nick Murphy, sets about it with more oomph, developing a grip like bubblegum laced with Loctite. Essentially, it's a wrong-man thriller, with John Simm as a detective hero accused of a hideous crime he did not commit, and going on the run to clear his name, while both his colleagues and a dark conspiracy come after him. Leave aside the mobile phones and a neat bit about vital clues on some old floppy discs, and the same basic plot could have served for a tasty film noir starring Richard Conte in the 1940s, which is the highest compliment I can think of.
As it is, Prey is as much a star vehicle as any old Hollywood studio production. Lunt and Murphy put it together in compulsive style, and make great use of the Manchester landscape, building an old Brit-noir world of pokey pubs, brick alleyways, dilapidated flats and dying highstreets. But the real draw is the chance to see Simm take the lead again. After the daft Mad Dogs beyond the Sky paywall and his short-lived role in the BBC's forgettable exercise in historical grim, The Village, Simm's performance, loose then switchblade sharp, is a compelling reminder of why he is one of the most important television actors of the past 20-odd years. Prey is a gritty comic book, in a good way, but Simm lends depth, edge and currency. Simply put, he keeps you watching. It's been a while since he had the kind of series his talent truly deserves, but I'd tune in for just about anything he's in, even if it's just another cop show.
Tuesday, April 29
9pm, BBC One
The great Sarah Lancashire was a key ingredient in writer Sally Wainwright's last hit, Last Tango In Halifax, but the best thing about Wainwright's new six-part series is seeing the actress leading front and centre again. Lancashire plays Catherine Cawood, a police sergeant on the beat in a depressed West Yorkshire town. We first encounter her as she's trying to persuade a wasted young man not to set himself on fire in a children's playground, during which she offers a handy character synopsis: "I'm Catherine, by the way. I'm 47, I'm divorced, I live with my sister - who's a recovering heroin addict - I have two grown-up children. One dead and one who doesn't speak to me. And a grandson." She also, as we learn, nurses feelings of guilt and revenge over that dead child, which begin to boil when she becomes involved in a local kidnapping case that spirals out of control. The ensemble includes dependables like George Costigan, Siobhan Finneran and Steve Pemberton, but it's Lancashire who makes it: weary, distant, not afraid to seem unlikable, and as watchable as Barbara Stanwyck.
Wednesday. April 30
10pm, BBC Three
With both The Americans and this twisty little sci-fi thriller, it's a golden age for wigs on TV. Returning for a second series, Orphan Black is daft, but it's fast, hooky and comic-booky, and features a terrific lead performance by Tatiana Maslany, a strong contender for the title of Hardest Working Woman On TV, because she plays about 10 different characters, with a bunch of different hairstyles, and sometimes plays several of them at once. Imagine the old Tommy Cooper hats routine, but with more killing and conspiracy. Her characters are all clones and, last we saw them, the main one, Sarah, had just found out some stuff about where she came from, prompting her to shoot her deranged assassin twin, Helena … It's complicated. As we catch up, she's on the run and desperate to find her missing daughter. There's a Cult TV meltdown brewing this series, as Michiel Huisman (ex- of Nashville and Tremé, and currently of Game Of Thrones) joins the cast soon as a broody love interest.
Thursday, May 1
The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain
9pm, BBC Four
I'm Lucy Worsley is back with another series on something snooty and monarchistic, this time the history and legacy of the reigns of George I and George II. A good night for a DVD, then. The story begins 300 years ago as, to prevent the crown falling into the hands of a Catholic, Britain imported a ready-made royal family from the small German state of Hanover. In the first of three episodes, Worsley uncovers the racy backstory of the new king: George I was middle-aged and conventional, but he headed the most dysfunctional royal family since the Tudors, having fallen out badly with his son - the new Prince Of Wales - over George's harsh treatment of his adulterous ex-wife. All in all, it's like Game Of Thrones, without the Game Of Thrones bit
Friday, May 2
The Trip To Italy
10pm, BBC Two
In an inversion of the first Trip, it's Rob Brydon's experience that has been pushed to the forefront this series, becoming the centre of what story there is amid the programme's hypnotic, drifting haze, as he continues to replay what happened with Steve Coogan the last time, but with oddly different results. His helpless slide into unpleasantness continues tonight, especially in an opening sequence set amid the potent ruins of Pompeii, where he proves entirely unable (or unwilling) to emphasise with the frozen victims of the city's disaster, taking it instead as an opportunity to wheel out his "Small Man In A Box" routine. Coogan walks off in silent disgust - before lapsing into a protracted Frankie Howerd himself. Elsewhere, Michael Winterbottom revels in cinematic echoes, with more nods toward Voyage To Italy, and a visit to locations John Huston used for Beat The Devil: the perfect excuse for some Bogart.
Saturday, May 3
You shouldn't need any more reasons to watch The Americans, but tonight's episode throws in a couple of excellent cult bonuses. First: it's directed by John Dahl, the neo-noir stylist behind movies like The Last Seduction and Joy Ride. Second, it features Rock This Town by The Stray Cats. The music comes as Philip is driving home in his brand new car, a white 1982 Camaro, a purchase Elizabeth sees as further evidence of his growing attraction to the American dream. ("Don't you ever enjoy any of this?" he asks. "This house. The clothes?" "It's nicer here. It's easier," she replies. "It's not better.") That mix of conflict and denial intensifies as they receive dark news from home about the tragic consequences of a previous mission, things seem increasingly pointless, and the choices they have to make grow ever more brutal. Meanwhile, Stan is in over his head in his triple game with the Russians, and the Jennings find out about Henry's illicit visits to the neighbours' house.