To each his own. My colleague Paul Mavis wrote a positively scathing review of Taggart - Set 1, a collection of episodes from "the world's longest continually running police drama," Paul calling it "thoroughly ordinary and conventional ... [and] sometimes ... laughable." But I had a hunch I might like it, and volunteered to review Acorn Media's new Taggart - Set 2. And like it I did - quite a lot, in fact. I try to space out shows like this a week or so apart, but I soon found myself obsessively devouring these things up, one every few days - a sure sign I was really getting into this singularly Glaswegian series.
Sure, it lacks the depth of characterization and ambitious thematic complexities of a Cracker or Prime Suspect or Inspector Morse, but that's okay. Shows like this are the modern equivalent of the 65-minute B-mysteries Hollywood cranked-out during the 1930s and '40s, and on that level Taggart can be quite enjoyable. And that's not to say Taggart is brainless escapism, either; though certainly more predictable than the best British crime shows, neither is it superficial. It aims reasonably high in a CSI: Crime Scene Investigation/Law & Order sort of way, and is similarly slickly produced, agreeably stylized and grittily realistic. I don't feel embarrassed admitting that I've become a fan.
(Paul was much kinder than I was reviewing another British mystery/crime series, Pie in the Sky. I suggested we swap our DVDs. Like I say, to each his own.)
I suspect one of the reasons Paul disliked Taggart had to do with the fact that the shows he reviewed were produced during a period when the series briefly underwent a 90- to 60-minute format change. Conversely, the eight episodes in Taggart - Set 2 are all 90-minute shows, i.e., 69-71 minutes without the commercials. That seems to be an ideal length for the series, and I can see how Taggart might suffer shorn of 20 minutes.
It's worth noting up front that another label, BFS Entertainment, apparently has rights to the earliest seasons/series of Taggart, as they've been releasing shows from the eighties and nineties, while Acorn's Taggart sets actually start with the 19th season, from 2002.
Like most British shows, Taggart has short mini-seasons compared with their American counterparts, 5-8 episodes per "series" versus 22-24 American "seasons." Unlike most British shows, Taggart's episodes have aired on a weirdly irregular schedule in recent years, to the great frustration of its British fans. Taggart - Set 2 consists of Series 20's six movie-length episodes and the first two shows from the 21st series.
There's no Taggart on this Taggart: both that character and the actor who played him (Mark McManus) died ages ago, in 1994. Instead, the series revolves around four characters introduced later on; as with Law & Order, not one was part of the original 1983 series. Blythe Duff, as Detective Sergeant (DS) Jackie Reid has been with Taggart the longest, since 1990. Alex Norton has been her boss, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Matt Burke, since 2002 (the series Paul Mavis reviewed), while John Michie, second-billed as DI Robbie Ross, has been around since 1998 and Colin McCredie, as DC Stuart Fraser, joined the force in 1995.
Unlike many British series set in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, which often feature English actors adopting over-emphatic regional accents, the cast of Taggart is authentic to its Glasgow setting. (They'll say, "There's bin a mudduh" instead of "There's bin a mya-dah," as in the Manchester-set Cracker. Apparently the sardonic Glaswegian delivery is often parodied on British comedy programs.) Reid and Norton were born in Glasgow, and McCredie hails from nearby Dumbarton. Michie was born in Burma but raised in Edinburgh.
The characters are iconic genre types. Matt Burke is the intense, stop-at-nothing boss; Jackie Reid is the devoted second-in-command, tough yet feminine, ready to intercede with appropriate humanism when needed; Robbie Ross is the cocky, self-styled ladies man who refuses to play by the rules; Stuart Fraser the relative neophyte, who has to work twice as hard to be accepted as an equal. Another character, Gemma Kerr (Lesley Harcourt), is also fairly prominent. She's an unusually attractive but highly intelligent, unshakeable pathologist, a character inviting favorable comparison to those on CSI.
Being new to the series I can't really compare it to "classic" Taggart from its McManus years, but the episodes here are extremely well produced and movie-like, and though longtime mystery fans may find them a bit predictable, they're still pretty suspenseful and intriguing.
The episodes in series 20 and early 21 tackle a varied range of crime topics, some fairly ambitious. "Compensation" is an especially good episode, with the team investigating murder and arson in rural Fenmore, crimes tied to both greedy land developers and the 2001 foot-and-mouth epizootic and government-decreed culling all area cattle, from which it never recovers. "Saints and Sinners" touches on toxic landfills and corporations subverting the judicial system to cover-up its devastating impact on the people living nearby.
I also liked how, again as with shows like CSI and Law & Order, the intelligent teleplays find room to add depth to the show's continuing characters, while a few guest actors and their characterizations also stand out. In "Compensation," Matt develops an interesting relationship with a crusty old farmer (Matthew Bill Boyd) who reminds him of his own estranged father. In "Puppet on a String," Jackie tries to come to terms with being a divorced, childless, and middle-aged woman whose entire life is tied up in her work. Over time, these characters become so familiar (in the good sense) that you know what everyone's drinking at the local pub after each case is solved.
Video & Audio
Taggart - Set 2's shows are presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen. Though filmed a while ago, in 2003 and 2004, the quality of the cinematography and the transfer is excellent and up to contemporary standards and the 2.0 Dolby Surround is quite strong. Optional English subtitles are included, which will help American viewers who have trouble understanding the sometimes thickly accented dialogue. There are no Extra Features.
Despite Paul Mavis's review of Taggart - Set 1, my prediction that I would perhaps enjoy it was met and exceeded. Twenty seasons after its debut, it's still a strong series with much to like, and American fans of CSI and Law & Order should give this a try. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Tora-san DVD boxed set, is on sale now.