DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the new miniseries "Bloodlands," a present day crime in Northern Ireland leads police to look again at an infamous cold case from years earlier. Its first episode drops Monday on the streaming service Acorn TV. And our critic-at-large, John Powers, says he was hooked from the start.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: I was maybe 12 when I first saw "The Third Man," the noir classic set in a post-World War II Vienna, bursting with expressionist atmospherics and jaunty amorality. Ever since, I've been drawn to tales set in the wake of historical turmoil. You get juicy stories when individuals and whole societies must deal with the guilts, losses and compromises they'd rather not think about. The ghost of violence past haunts "Bloodlands," a new thriller set in a present day Northern Ireland still struggling to rebuild a sense of normalcy in the aftermath of what's known as the troubles. Written by Chris Brandon, this four-part original series from the Acorn TV's streaming service was produced by Jed Mercurio, whose hugely popular shows such as "The Bodyguard" and "Line Of Duty" are notorious for having more twists than a rattlesnake farm. "Bloodlands" is more restrained, but trust me, it serves up a couple of lethal doozies.
Although you can follow the action without knowing the historical backstory, it helps to remember the basics. Starting in the late 1960s, Northern Ireland lived through a de facto civil war between Catholics and Protestants, whose violence killed many thousands of its citizens. The conflict ran until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which brought about an uneasy peace in a small, intimate land where nobody was left untouched by bloodshed.
"Bloodlands" begins 20 years after this truce, when a car is fished from Strandford Lough with what seems to be a suicide note in it. Assigned to the case is bottled-up police detective Tom Brannick, played by James Nesbitt, whose face you'll recognize, and his partner Niamh, well-played by the sympathetically offbeat Charlene McKenna. Tom spots connection between this note and an unsolved case - and not just any unsolved case. Dating back to The Troubles, this one involves an assassin nicknamed Goliath with ties to the police who killed several people, including some close to Tom. Here, Tom fills Niamh in on the background.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLOODLANDS")
JAMES NESBITT: (As DCI Tom Brannick) In '98, the thing that linked Goliath's victims was that each one of them was made to look as if they'd done a runner - fear, debt, reputation, they all had a credible reason to leave. And that's the version of events that everyone chose to accept.
CHARLENE MCKENNA: (As DS Niamh McGovern) How many targets?
NESBITT: (As DCI Tom Brannick) Four.
MCKENNA: (As DS Niamh McGovern) So Goliath's a serial killer.
NESBITT: (As DCI Tom Brannick) That makes it sound indiscriminate. These were targeted assassinations. Peace was on the table. If word got out that a member of the police was picking off targets at will, it'd destroy that, just like now. It would risk a return to all-out war.
POWERS: Just as Tom and Niamh begin reopening the Goliath case, they're ordered to stop by his old friend and police higher-up Jackie Twomey, who's come down from Belfast to take charge of things. Played by Lorcan Cranitch, an actor who could give seminars on seeming slippery, Jackie worries that digging into the past might shatter the precarious peace. Predictably, this doesn't slow down Tom, who's obsessed with burying Goliath once and for all. If "Bloodlands" initially strikes you as being a tad ponderous and formulaic, do stick around. The action starts to clip along with nifty cinematography and deft use of the locations around the lovely Strandford Lough. Though I'm no great fan of Nesbitt, who invariably overdoes the clench-faced masculinity bit, the rest of the cast is strong, be it Peter Ballance ballons as an Irish thug turned businessman, or Lisa Dwan as a doctor who teaches Tom's beloved daughter, Izzy, at medical school and seems to fancy Tom.
Now, there are two big ways that today's crime dramas tend to go badly wrong. In an attempt to keep our adrenaline pumping, they often hit you with so many twists that the plot starts feeling arbitrary and meaningless. While "Bloodlands" does have a few thriller-ish implausibilities, Brandon takes care to lay the groundwork for his big surprises, and he keeps them rooted in our sense of the characters in their world. The story builds to a finale that feels apt and emotionally satisfying. This is because "Bloodlands" avoids the other big mistake, which is a moral one, that of trivializing historical tragedy.
At first, I feared that Brandon was exploiting Northern Ireland's tortured past simply to create a moody backdrop for a routine cop show. But I was wrong. While the series doesn't rival the best recent looks at Northern Ireland - Anna Burns's brilliant novel, "Milkman," and Patrick Radden Keefe's true crime masterpiece, "Say Nothing," it does have something on its mind. By the end, wishing that "Bloodlands" isn't merely unfolding a crime story, it's offering a metaphor for the troubled soul of Northern Ireland two decades after The Troubles supposedly ended. And its characters learn a hard truth we've been learning here in America, too. You can bury the past as deep as you want, but when you get home, its ghost is there, waiting for you.
DAVIES: John Powers reviewed the new miniseries "Bloodlands." It begins streaming Monday on Acorn TV. On Monday's show, we speak with Deborah Feldman, whose memoir about leaving the ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, inspired the Netflix series "Unorthodox." Feldman will explain why she felt she had to leave her arranged marriage and the price she paid for breaking with the sect. I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.