Tuesday, August 16, 2016

New Tricks

Dennis Waterman, Alun Armstrong,
James Bolam, and Amanda Redman.
Premise:  When a botched assignment temporarily derails her fast-track career, Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman is tasked with standing up the Unsolved Crime and Open Case (UCOS) Squad for the Metropolitan Police. In addition to Pullman, this new unit will consist of three retired detectives--civilians without the authority to arrest criminals. At least, Sandra (Amanda Redman) gets to pick her team and her first choice is a former boss, retired Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Halford (James Bolam). With Halford's assistance, Sandra completes the UCOS team with retired Detective Inspector Brian Lane (Alun Armstrong) and Detective Sergeant Gerry Standing (Dennis Waterman). All three men come with considerable baggage: Jack still talks nightly with his dead wife, the apparent victim of a hit-and-run accident; the oft-married Gerry battles unfounded, past allegations of corruption; and Brian is an obsessive-compulsive, recovering alcoholic with a long-suffering wife. However, the four detectives come together to forge a potent investigative team and a supportive "family." Beginning with Jack's departure in season 9, the original team is gradually replaced by an entirely new one over seasons 10-12.

Running Time: 60 minutes (the pilot is 97 minutes).

Status:  12 seasons were broadcast between 2003 and 2015. They're available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes:  Screenwriter Roy Mitchell created New Tricks, which--unlike many British TV detective shows--was not based on a book series. All four of the original actors experienced prior success on British television. Among his many shows, Alun Armstrong starred opposite David Jason (A Touch of Frost) in A Sharp Intake of Breath. Amanda Redman earned a 2001 Best Actress nomination from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for At Home With the Braithwaites. James Bolam may be best remembered for his 1960s sitcom The Likely Lads. And Dennis Waterman teamed with John Thaw (Inspector Morse) for the 1970s police drama The Sweeney. Of course, New Tricks was also something of a family affair. Brian Lane's wife Esther was played by James Bolam's real-life spouse Susan Jameson. Brian and Esther's dog Scampi was, in fact, Alun Armstrong's dog. And Dennis Waterman's real-life daughter Hannah played his "daughter" for two seasons on the show. By the way, the theme song is sung by Waterman--who we almost get to hear sing in one of the episodes.

Our Review:  New Tricks is a delightful comedy-drama with brilliantly-conceived characters played by a talented group of actors. I'm sure every fan has his or her favorite, but ours was Brian, whose memory for details (his rarely-used nickname is Memory Lane) plays a critical part in solving many of the cases. We were consistently impressed with Alun Armstrong's ability to convey the character's strengths (he's the most intelligent member of UCOS) and liabilities (the alcoholism, his inability to let go of an idea, his childish behavior). While New Tricks is never less than enjoyable, its first seven years are the best and feature well-developed mysteries balanced with insights into the characters' private lives. One of the show's few flaws is its occasional tendency to drop a ongoing storyline without explanation. For example, the first few seasons feature Gerry's ex-wives, particularly Jayne, but they disappear by the fourth season. Still, that's a minor quibble for a show that gets an enthusiastic endorsement.

Grade:  A (A+ for seasons 1-7).

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