Two things British television does extremely well are period pieces and mysteries. And here come a couple now.
"Foyle's War" returns to PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery!" with three new feature-length episodes Sunday night. Though the production was on hiatus for a couple of years, the action — set mainly in and around the English seaside town of Hastings — picks up just where it left off: Previous seasons of "Foyle's" got us through World War II; now we are in its immediate aftermath, a period of settling and resetting, of cleaning up the various bits of nasty business that keep Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, played by Michael Kitchen, still doing the job he has for some time been trying to leave.
Foyle's former driver Samantha Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) is now keeping house for an artist, though she'll fall back into her Watson ways soon enough. Detective Sergeant Paul Milner (Anthony Howell) is now a detective inspector just down the road in Brighton, and is a little territorial to begin with. And Foyle, though he has moved to the bright new Hastings police station, is making plans to go off to America to take care of "unfinished business."
Because the series is about history as much as it is about mystery, the stories tend to wrap around real events — they're ripped from yesterday's headlines, so to speak. (Sunday's, which has the bones of a conspiracy thriller, is about the forced repatriation of anti-Stalin Russian POWs.) But the human element stays to the fore.
To the credit of their industry, British TV detectives skew older than their American counterparts: White-haired, balding, some with grown children, they have been shaped by time — that is, they are unusually centered and mature, or they are creatures of longstanding bad habits. Either way, there is more to them than good hair, a big gun and a fast car. I'm thinking of John Thaw of "Inspector Morse," Martin Shaw of "George Gently" and John Nettles of "Midsomer Murders" (created by "Foyle's War" creator Anthony Horowitz). Helen Mirren was 46 in her first "Prime Suspect," but over 60 in her last. Kitchen is 61, and though he is small and quiet for a TV cop, he possesses a fearsome decency, not to be swayed by rank or authority, that borders on the superheroic. He's clear-sighted and dogged, courteous where it's merited and cutting where it's not, and it is pure joy to watch him go.
Another jolly bit of old (though not very old) England is revived in the second season of "Ashes to Ashes," the sequel to the time-traveling, clashing-realities cop show "Life on Mars" (the British original, not the inferior American translation), which returns to BBC America May 11. (A third series of "Ashes" is already running in Britain.) At the top of Season 1, forensic psychologist Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) took a bullet in 2008 and woke up in 1981. We have got to 1982 now, and although Alex is still getting messages from her present-future via her DOS-running computer or a talking dog, she has settled in some, and formed attachments to her co-workers — especially to Philip Glenister's righteous, rule-bending and utterly vulgar DI Gene Hunt, who is the engine that makes the series go.
Gene and the rest of them may or may not be figments of Alex's imagination, but for the purposes of the adventure — in which time and consciousness are just literary constructs after all — everything is equally ambiguous and equally real. Ultimately they are just here to entertain you, and do.