Sometimes it takes a while for a TV series to warm up to its full potential, or for an already successful series to click with viewers initially unimpressed. I didn't much care for New Tricks - Season Five when I reviewed it a while back, but stuck with it anyway and, very gradually, I warmed up to its four major characters, three retired police detectives recruited by their middle-aged (and female) detective superintendent boss to solve cold cases.
The BBC-produced program, now distributed all over the world, was humming along quite nicely, with seven-to-ten one-hour episodes per season since its 2003 debut, but it's now in the midst of a major overhaul. One of its stars, James Bolam, left at the beginning of Season Nine, with two more (Amanda Redman and Alun Armstrong) scheduled to depart during season ten, airing in the U.K. this summer.
Reportedly, Bolam felt New Tricks had "become stale." Yet, ironically, it was during the show's eighth season that New Tricks enjoyed its highest ratings ever and, even more surprising, in terms of the writing New Tricks - Season Nine is a marked improvement over the past several years. Season nine's teleplays are much more character-driven, and even the cold cases themselves, usually New Tricks' least interesting component, are more timely and ambitious.
What's more, Acorn Media's release of New Tricks - Season Nine is a vast improvement over the previous season's DVDs. Season nine was clearly shot in high-def (and there's a Blu-ray release in the U.K.) and that would account for the excellent image on these discs, but then why did past seasons look so murky and unattractive? A 12-minute behind-the-scenes featurette is also included.
Scottish actor Denis Lawson (second from left) joins the cast
For those unfamiliar, New Tricks revolves around UCOS, the Metropolitan Police Service's special branch dealing in 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 66 during season nine), Jack Halford (James Bolam, 77), and Gerry Standing (Dennis Waterman, 64).
Jack Halford announces his retirement at the beginning of the season premiere ("A Death in the Family"), an announcement so sudden his friends and colleagues suspect something is seriously wrong with the cynical widower. The episode taps into one of New Tricks' strengths, the relationships among the various characters, and by the end is unexpectedly touching and sorrowful. Indeed, the emotional legacy of Halford's abrupt departure cleverly seeps into subsequent episodes, with Brian Lane, the most psychologically vulnerable member of UCOS, particularly suffering from this personal loss.
Brian also feels some early resentment toward the man hired to replace Halford, Glaswegian Steve McAndrew (Denis Lawson, then 64), a retired detective inspector initially brought in as an consultant on an unsolved missing persons case he's worked on tirelessly since 2003. Low-key yet loquacious, at first he drives the other team members crazy but his obvious expertise, enthusiasm, and basic decency soon win over Sandra and Gerry, and, eventually, Brian.
Steve's appearance is also the source of endless amusing banter contrasting London and Scottish living. When Steve complains about London's fast-food restaurants Gerry counters, "All Scottish cuisine is based on a dare."
Lawson is well known to British audiences for television series like Holby City and Bleak House, though Americans will know him as the publican in Local Hero (1983) and for his small but memorable role as fighter pilot Wedge Antilles in the original Star Wars trilogy.
Besides a brighter, less obviously theatrical UCOS set, New Tricks' cold cases are much timelier and more interesting, with many story ideas "ripped from the headlines," as the saying goes. "Body of Evidence," for instance, about the discovery of a long-missing computer expert at a university hospital morgue, evolves into an intriguing tale of computer hacking obviously based on the revelations of Anonymous. And the season-opener, "A Death in the Family," about an unsolved murder 160 years ago, once solved may have repercussions with a secret, sensitive agreement between Britain and China. Another show, involving a man who tricks naÃ¯ve girlfriends into believing he's a government agent in order to steal their money and control their every move, may be fictional but has an air of originality and authenticity New Tricks has needed for a long time.
Video & Audio
Shot for 1.78:1 high-def exhibition, New Tricks - Season Nine looks great, up to contemporary television standards. 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 12-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with members of the cast and crew.
A big improvement over past seasons, New Tricks - Season Nine is heartily 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.