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Best of 2022: ‘Sherwood,’ This Year’s Best Crime Drama, Isn’t About Crime At All

Despite the title, prevalence of crossbows and occasional ventures into Nottinghamshire’s forests, the BritBox acquisition Sherwood isn’t the umpteenth screen outing for the legend that is Robin Hood. And although it’s inspired by two real-life, but entirely unrelated, murders that occurred within two weeks of each other in the mid-’00s, it isn’t your conventional crime drama, either. 

The brainchild of James Graham, who’s made similarly involving TV out of the Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? coughing scandal (Quiz) and unarguably the U.K.’s biggest political own goal (Brexit: The Uncivil War), the six-part series is far more interested in another chapter of recent local history: the ’84-85 mining strikes that tore apart a small-town working-class community and made Margaret Thatcher public enemy number one. 

Graham has admitted he sparked an existential crisis at the BBC – where the show first premiered in the summer – about his unusual approach to the genre. Sherwood pretty much confirms its central culprit in the opening episode’s closing scene (their interest in dangerous conspiracy theories and serial killers isn’t a red herring), and the reveal of their motive echoes the anti-climactic, divisive denouement of Line of Duty. Yet there’s so much going on elsewhere the whodunit and whydunit becomes almost irrelevant. 

Of course, the brutal first murder needs to happen for all the old wounds (or should that be scabs) to reopen. As explained by archival footage featuring the shiver-inducing tones of the Iron Lady, the residents of Ashfield are still reeling from the picket-crossing events of yesteryear. None more so than Gary (Alun Armstrong), a miserly former trade unionist who spends his days deliberately antagonizing those he felt betrayed the cause, even when at a wedding. “You should call her Maggie,” he tells the socially inept Andy (Adeel Akhtar) at the ceremony about his new daughter-in-law Sarah (Joanne Froggatt). “Tonight, she’ll be screwing a working man.” Understandably, there are plenty of possible suspects once Gary is found dead in the middle of the street with a crossbow bolt pierced through his heart. 

However, while investigating the bizarre killing, DCS Ian St. Clair (David Morrissey) learns of a wider conspiracy. Not only has Gary’s police record (he was arrested for arson during the strike before an intervening cop got the charges dropped) strangely been redacted. There’s also evidence an undercover officer infiltrated the movement to further whip up disharmony and unrest between the two warring sides (and in turn, help drive through Thatcher’s program of deregulation). And most shockingly of all, this spy is still embedded within the community. 

Graham cleverly sews the seeds of suspicion throughout, eventually pulling the rug out from under viewers during a meticulously-crafted fifth episode which journeys back to where it all began. This intriguing mystery should satisfy those slightly underwhelmed by both of the open and shut murder cases. Once again, though, Sherwood is less concerned about the issue of identity and reasoning and more with how the individual’s behavior, and its tragic consequences, impacted those around them.

St. Clair, for example, is still struggling to deal with the reputational damage the informer inadvertently caused, something which rises further to the surface when an old foe, DI Kevin Salisbury (Robert Glenister), is assigned as his back-up. The latter also has his own demons to wrestle from one particularly fateful evening in which the strike turned deadly. And Gary’s wife Julie (Academy Award nominee Lesley Manville) hasn’t spoken to her sister Cathy (Claire Rushbrook) since – well apart from in hilariously passive-aggressive terms – despite living just yards apart. 

It’s these two siblings who get the best dialog as their frosty relationship eventually starts to thaw in the wake of their family loss. There’s a heart-wrenching semi-reconciliatory scene in which both parties attempt to make sense of things while divided by their backyard walls. Manville, fast becoming a national treasure, also provides much of the light relief: see her constant throwbacks to ‘80s children’s show Emu‘s All Live Pink Windmill Show which will bemuse American audiences as much as her young grandkids.

Indeed, although Sherwood is steeped in pathos, and addresses such weighty issues as the abuse of governmental powers, manipulation of the working-class and mistrust in the police force, it doesn’t forget the mundanity of daily life must continue. Even those in the full throes of grief can still pontificate about the complicated rules of daytime quiz shows, while in a development which proves to be surprisingly pivotal to the snitch-hunting operation, the local school still plows ahead with its harvest festival. Sherwood’s characters, brought to life by a who’s who of British thespian talent, and the pressure cooker world they inhabit feel genuinely lived in, no doubt informed by Graham’s experiences of growing up in the same area. 

It’s why the more dramatic set-pieces, most notably the spur-of-the-moment second homicide which occurs away from the main narrative, pack such an emotional punch. Few of Ashfield’s residents could be described as likable – we’ve not even mentioned the Sparrows, a Shameless-esque family of low-level criminals whose business dealings range from archery lessons to selling ketamine. But despite the specificity of their situation, and indeed their location, (get ready for the affectionate term ‘duck’ to enter your vocabulary), their emotional responses generally ring true.

Admittedly, Sherwood stretches plausibility in its final few minutes with a contrived faux pas, albeit one that should have every watching narc hurriedly turning off one particular feature on their smartphones. Nevertheless, the fact such an inflammatory, decade-spanning saga concludes not with a violent showdown but a seemingly trivial misuse of everyday technology is in keeping with the show’s high stakes/low-key balance. At a time when the latest Jeffrey Dahmer dramatization is facing accusations of sensationalism and exploitation, here is a welcome reminder of how the true crime genre can still compel even when the focus veers away from its crimes. 

Jon O’Brien (@jonobrien81) is a freelance entertainment and sports writer from the North West of England. His work has appeared in the likes of Vulture, Esquire, Billboard, Paste, i-D and The Guardian. 

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