Okay, I get it now. About a year-and-a-half ago I wrote a mixed-to-negative review of New Tricks, the popular BBC series about retired police officers recruited to solve cold cases. In that review I likened New Tricks to earlier, American comfort food-type mystery shows such as Murder, She Wrote, Matlock and Diagnosis: Murder. That's a fair comparison, but now realize I was overly harsh in criticizing the series' formula scripts. Formula they may be, but they're better tailored to the personalities driving the show than I first realized, and there's a darker undercurrent absent from New Tricks' American counterparts. In short, New Tricks grows on one, albeit slowly. Ironically, three of the four stars have left or are leaving the series: James Bolan after the first episode of Season 9, and both Amanda Redman and Alun Armstrong by the end of Season 10, airing later this year.
Acorn Media's release is okay. I'm not sure if it's the cinematographic style or because Acorn is cramming up to four hours of show on each single-sided DVD (both, I suspect), but the picture quality is underwhelming if acceptable. Also included is a decent, 19-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.
The series revolves around UCOS, the Metropolitan Police Service's special branch dealing in cold (sometimes very, very cold) cases. Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman) leads the (fictional) Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad, which is staffed with much older, retired officers: Brian Lane (Alun Armstrong, age 65 during season eight), Jack Halford (James Bolam, 76), and Gerry Standing (Dennis Waterman, 63).
The colorful but often wheezy cases are of the same ilk as those in similar, star-driven American shows featuring Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, et al.: the murder of an outspoken paleontologist at the National History Museum, the possible attempted murder of a bicycle courier, the mysterious murder of a vagrant in the bowels of London's subway system, etc.
Like most British mysteries made these days, New Tricks' mysteries are its least interesting component. Programs like these are driven by the characters investigating them, and by the actors playing those characters. In New Tricks, as elsewhere, familiarity breeds affection and it's that, rather than the individual scripts, that keeps viewers coming back. Each character and their interaction with the others become interesting over time, and the knowledge the viewer accumulates about them pays off later on. When they interview suspects, for instance, sometimes a suspect will say something that will remind the viewer about one of the retired officers' past, such as the long-unsolved murder (some seasons back) of Jack Halford's beloved wife, of Brian Lane's alcoholism, of Gerry Standing's efforts to maintain his ladies man reputation, of Sandra Pullman's stormy relationship with her mother.
The series is also unexpectedly dark, with many episodes ending on a sour note: the villain avoids justice, a competing department gets all the credit for an arrest, one of the character's personal crisis ends badly. Also, somewhat unlike similar American shows, there's no attempt to make everybody loveable or create a workplace-as-surrogate-family-unit. One gets the sense that for everyone UCOS is just a job, and that they'd just as soon be at home watching the telly. Sandra is a boss like any other boss: at times insensitive to others' needs, overbearing, sometimes unreasonable, short-tempered. She's not a particularly likeable character and she often clashes with the others, particularly Jack. Both Jack and Brian are moody, with the former tending to become surly or withdrawn, the latter nervous and unpredictably emotional. Brian's stories often revolve around disagreements with his wife, played by Susan Jameson (who in fact is actor James Bolam's wife, not Alun Armstrong's).
Without overdoing it, New Tricks also address issues relating to senior citizens. Sandra, at times, barely tolerates her team's age-related issues, or their occasional attempts at activities really beyond their years. One episode here has a psychologist researching older men in the workplace, and her interviews with the men in the cast are funny and spot-on. Conversely, New Tricks is a mostly positive portrait. Brian, for instance, actively bicycles to work, and Gerry maintains a busy social life, including gourmet culinary classes.
Video & Audio
Shot for 1.78:1 high-def exhibition, New Tricks - Season Eight looks okay but the image at times is both extremely grainy and soft at the same time, and as noted above probably some combination of the way it's shot and the manner in which so many 59-minute episodes are crammed onto a single disc. The Dolby Digital stereo audio is good and supported by optional English SDH subtitles. Ten episodes are spread across three single-sided, dual-layered discs with a total running time of just under 10 hours.
The lone extra is a pretty good one: a 19-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with members of the cast and crew.
Not great but still hard to resist for its strong characters and the terrific actors playing them, New Tricks is Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.