Grumpy Old Detectives
CHRIS CHAN reviews the BBC series New Tricks
New Tricks takes a fairly basic plot concept and really makes it work. Three extremely capable police officers are recruited out of retirement in order to staff an experimental new investigative unit focusing on cold cases. The show could have wound up being little more than a mediocre mess of geriatric jokes, but thanks to a first-rate cast, droll humor, and some pretty intriguing mysteries, New Tricks turns out to be an unmitigated delight. Eight seasons of this British series have been broadcast as of this writing, and season six is the most recent one to be released on DVD.
The series’ title comes from the old adage about old dogs being incapable of being taught new tricks. But as the series proves, these aged veterans adapt easily to new technology, new guidelines of investigation, and new required codes of conduct. The team consists of Brian Lane (Alun Armstrong), a recovering alcoholic who is compelled to rely on his bicycle for transportation and who continually struggles to keep his long-suffering wife Esther (Susan Jameson) happy; Jack Halford (James Bolam), a widower who is still grieving his late wife; and Gerry Standing (Dennis Waterman), an oft-divorced ladykiller who refuses to admit that he is no longer the swinging bachelor he used to be. Leading the team is Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman, whose temporarily derailed career led her to supervise a badly-funded team composed of men a generation older than her.
While the casual viewer can start the series at any point, some of the characters’ back-stories that fuel the investigations and give context to some of the humor are not fully explained in season six. Pullman’s rising star career path was stalled when she accidentally shot a hostage’s dog. A tragic ending to a previous season’s case led to Lane relapsing on his alcoholism. Halford’s wife was murdered by a hit-and-run driver who got away with it, and the case is not resolved until the sixth season. The episode where Halford finally sees justice done, however, contains major spoilers from earlier episodes. Once again, there’s no need to watch the entire series in order, but new viewers need to be prepared for occasional callbacks to earlier episodes.
Season six is composed of eight episodes, although the order of the episodes on the discs is slightly different from the original British air date. A couple of the episodes start with intriguing premises and stumble towards the end—the government conspiracy subplot to “The Truth is Out There” is handled clumsily, and the downbeat ending to the season finale, “Meat is Murder,” where Pullman uncovers a potentially devastating family secret, lacks the punch it really ought to have had. The episode is saved, however, by an awkwardly funny subplot where Standing, a proud cockney, desperately tries to cover up his Huguenot ancestry.
One of the best aspects of the series is the bizarrely comic supporting characters who are sprinkled throughout the episodes, ranging from a monk who believes that the best form of substance abuse therapy is to scream at the patient until he feels sufficiently guilty to battle his addiction, to a bigoted stand-up comedian who thrives on political incorrectness, to a sleazy, failed art film director, to a couple of “Lone Gunmen”-eque alien hunters. The show is a playground for character actors, but the humorous aspects of the show are always kept reined in, so as not to turn each investigation into farce. Indeed, some of the episodes are unexpectedly hard-hitting, with family tragedies or unsatisfying endings popping up at surprising times.
The mysteries are by and large well-crafted, with just the right amount of twists and turns. Initially sympathetic characters turn out to be villains, though not necessarily the killers. Viewers have to be prepared to have their expectations upended multiple times, with each hour-long episode going into directions one might not logically expect.
The heart of the show remains the four leads. Pullman tends to play her scenes as the strict but caring teacher who keeps the three rowdiest boys in the class in line, although the male detectives frequently illustrate that Pullman herself has a lot to learn about the art of investigation. Indeed, the banter between the detectives as they reminisce about the old days and complain about everything else they can think of is good enough that they wouldn’t have to investigate crimes to be worth watching. For the sake of the show, though, it’s a good thing that they do have to solve murders.
–by Chris Chan