New Tricks: Season 5
Acorn Media // Unrated // $39.99 // September 27, 2011
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted September 20, 2011
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The DVD cover art includes a quote from The Guardian (U.K.), calling New Tricks (2003-present) "cutting-edge Brit TV." While it certainly has its good points, New Tricks is about as cutting-edge as Matlock. Indeed, the series is less like other British shows and a lot closer in spirit and style to the crime-solving programs popular with older viewers more than 20 years ago in America, shows like Murder, She Wrote and Diagnosis: Murder.

Its quartet of stars are nothing if not eminently likeable, and the program is a bit like a comfy chair you'd hate to part with even though it's ready for the curb, its stuffing bursting through torn leather arms. The leading players of New Tricks - Season Five (2008) infuse it with what charm it has, but beyond that it looks rather cheap and its mysteries are resolutely routine, singularly unimaginative, even dull.

Acorn Media's release is handsome, however, with eight hour-long episodes presented across three discs. Also included is a decent behind-the-scenes featurette.

The series revolves around UCOS, the Metropolitan Police Service's special branch dealing in cold (sometimes very, very cold) cases. The Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad is lead by Det. Sup. Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman) but staffed by much older, retired officers: Brian Lane (Alun Armstrong, age 62 during season five), Jack Halford (James Bolam, 73), and Gerry Standing (Dennis Waterman, 60).

The colorful but wheezy cases are of the same ilk as those found in similar, star-driven American shows featuring Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, et. al.: an actor shot dead with a prop gun during the middle of a performance; a famous rock star whose suicide 33 years before is called into question; a controversial DJ murdered in a radio station fire. One episode even involves hypnotism and a possibly murderous magician, a premise already old hat back when Lt. Columbo was on the case 40 years ago.

Produced by the BBC, New Tricks - at least the season five episodes this reviewer saw - have an air of cheapness about them, especially when compared to other British detective series that may not have the high budgets of CSI or Law & Order but which nonetheless have superior production values. This is surprising given the program's popularity; it's consistently the most-watched British show of its time-slot.

Rather, the series is predominantly personality-driven, with ongoing, melodramtic story threads that those late to this party (such as this reviewer) may have difficulty following and fully appreciating. As the season begins, Ricky Hanson (David Troughton, the son of actor Patrick Troughton), the man who murdered Jack's beloved wife, is now on trial. Jack, who talks to his wife nightly at the small, candlelit gravesite/shrine he keeps at his home, later goes missing and is absent from several episodes. Brian is an eccentric, obsessive-compulsive and recovering alcoholic cared for by doting wife Esther (Susan Jameson). Gerry is a thrice-divorced, old school copper trying to mend ties with an estranged adult daughter. Sandra, meanwhile, learns unsettling facts about her ex-cop father.

Dennis Waterman sings the show's theme song. Not being familiar with the show or its history, my first reaction was that it outrageously plagiarizes the George Harrison/Traveling Wilburys' "End of the Line." Apparently, however, the real "End of the Line" was used for the pilot film, which was then changed to the sound-alike "It's All Right" for the series, its title taken from the lyrics to "End of the Line."

The show's cagey premise, teaming three veteran male actors with a younger, sexy female actress as their boss is so clever I'm surprised that the series hasn't yet been adapted for American television.* (Picture this: Dennis Franz, Tom Selleck, and Daniel J. Travanti, with Natalie Martinez as their boss.)

There's an undeniable familial camaraderie among the cast, helped no doubt by the fact that nearly all the actors have worked with one another before, often multiple times. Actress Jameson, for instance, appeared on both Waterman's Circles of Deceit TV movies, and is now a regular on Grandpa in My Pocket, which stars Bolam. (Reader Jason Bott helpfully adds "An additional trivia note about the actors in the show: Jameson, who plays [Brian Lane]'s wife, has been married to James Bolam since the '70s. They co-starred as love interests in the classic BBC drama When the Boat Comes In, which I highly recommend, [though] unfortunately not released in the U.S.")

Video & Audio

Shot for 1.78:1 high-def exhibition, New Tricks - Season 5 is up to contemporary television standards, and has especially good Dolby Digital stereo audio supported by optional English SDH subtitles. Eight episodes are spread across three single-sided, dual-layered discs.

Extra Features

The lone extra is a pretty good one, if spoiler-filled: a behind-the-scenes featurette with the cast and crew, who chiefly discuss season five's character arcs.

Parting Thoughts

Despite an ingratiating cast, I found New Tricks slight in the extreme, with overly-familiar storylines functioning like filler for the more interesting if melodramatic personal lives of the aging ex-coppers investigating them. Rent It.

* Something else that took me by surprise is actress Amanda Redman's badly scarred left arm, the result of being scalded by boiling soup when she was just 15 months old. Though more than 75% of her body suffered burns (she was even pronounced dead at one point), Redman recovered and only her arm was permanently impacted. Though it's initially startling, Redman is to be commended for making no effort at all to hide it, and undoubtedly has inspired other burn victims to regain their self-esteem and self-consciousness. Good for her.

Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.

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