As the streaming universe expands, the premium cable channels no longer have a monopoly on quality series. Take in these shows on SundanceNow, BritBox and Acorn for proof of that.
“The Bureau,” Season 3 (SundanceNow). Like “The Wire,” the superb French espionage series “The Bureau” unfolds like an epic novel, preferring a deepening, open-ended narrative to the loud climaxes in which its closest American equivalent, “Homeland,” engages. The 10-episode season three opens with Guillaume Debailly (Matthieu Kosovitz), the irreplaceable French agent code-named Malotru, being held captive by an ISIS-like group somewhere in Syria. His friends at the DGSE security agency are doing their best to rescue him — even though he betrayed them by becoming a double agent for the CIA. He crossed that moral red line to get Nadia (Zineb Triki), the beautiful academic with whom he had an affair in Damascus, freed from oppressive Syrian control. Now, she is risking her well-being by acting as a link between the ISIS group and a Syrian art trafficker she knows with ties to the jihadists, in a last-ditch effort to get Malotru freed. Meanwhile, seismologist Marina (Sara Giraudeau), fresh from a panic-stricken undercover stint in Iran that led to her resignation from DGSE, is recruited by Mossad — claiming to be DGSE — to spy on Iran’s nuclear weapon program as an institute fellow in Azerbaijan. There’s a lot going on, but the show never loses focus or intensity, and the performances are flawless. The fabulous cast of characters includes a female psychologist working as a double agent — perhaps series creator Eric Rochant’s most unsettling concept.
“In the Dark” (BritBox). Drawn from a pair of novels by British mystery ace Mark Billingham, this new BBC series takes the unusual step of featuring not his star detective, Tom Thorne (played by “Walking Dead” Governor David Morrissey in “Sleepyhead” and “Scaredy Cat”), but Thorne’s sidekick, DI Helen Weeks (MyAnna Buring, Tanya in “Breaking Dawn”). Thorne has been replaced as her boyfriend and the setting has shifted from London to Manchester. In the first of a pair of two-part dramas, the newly pregnant Weeks returns after many years to her home town in rural Derbyshire to be with her childhood best friend Linda, whose husband has been charged with abducting two young girls. Though not there in an official capacity, Weeks wastes little time immersing herself in the case — and locking horns with her superiors. Her homecoming brings back childhood traumas with which she has never dealt. In part two, late in her pregnancy, Weeks probes a gangland shooting that results in the death of someone close to her — one of several shocking developments. It’s reasonable to question whether, in her condition, the tough but vulnerable Helen would go running around Manchester’s mean streets alone. If you can buy that, “In the Dark” will win you over. Among its highlights is a chillingly charismatic turn by Tim McInnerny (Robbie Coltrane’s partner in “National Treasure” and Lord Robett Glover on “Game of Thrones”) as an underworld heavy.
“Vera,” Season 7 (Acorn). Notwithstanding her masterly use of “love” and “pet” in addressing both friends and foes, there is no grumpier gumshoe on TV than Brenda Blethyn’s frumpy DCI Vera Stanhope. After all her years on the force in northern England, she no longer makes the slightest attempt to hold back her impatience, whether it’s because a suspect hasn’t told the truth or her young male sergeant hasn’t gotten her a biscuit to go with her coffee. But like a bloodhound, she’s never thrown off the scent when investigating a murder. Season 7’s victims include a female ranger who died a mysterious death on a remote island, an outspoken university student who fell or was pushed from a high window, a missing teenage girl whose buried body is discovered out on the moors and, most compellingly, a drug addict from the city of Newcastle with ties to a farmhouse murder committed 13 years ago. Long past the point of revealing anything new about Vera, the series is nothing if not formula-bound, but not in the cutesy manner of “Murder She Wrote.” For all her character’s quirks, Blethyn refuses to make her lovable, sharing with Kyra Sedgwick‘s “Closer” detective a rather fierce intelligence. And as beautiful as its hilly settings are, “Vera” (based on novels by Ann Cleeves, whose “Shetland” mysteries are also being adapted for TV) knows how to make them ominous as well.
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