Tuesday, 6 October 2015
No more tricks for the old dogs
Tonight, what was once one of my favourite tv shows, New Tricks, has its final episode, and I have mixed feelings about its demise. The cop show about retired policemen solving cold cases using old-fashioned methods has run for twelve years and it’s clearly long past its best.
For the first half of its run the stories were a fun mixture of murder mystery and comedy. I’ve watched some of the early episodes numerous times and still find them entertaining, but from around season 7 the show started to drop in quality. Each season was less fun than the previous one until season 11 where I found myself watching only because of that odd sense of duty you have with shows you once loved but which are now no longer entertaining. It was no surprise when the announcement came that the show would end, but then strangely, as sometimes happens with final seasons, the show has improved leaving me sadder to see it go than I thought I would be.
Many reasons are usually offered for its long decline with the most common being the changes in cast. The show started with the dream combination of great writing, great characters and the perfect actors to play those characters. All the replacement characters had less charm than the originals. So, as Jack, Brian, Sandra and Gerry were replaced by Steve, Danny, Sasha and Ted the show obviously lost something, but I think it had less to do with the actors and more to do with the writing. In the early days I found myself making mental notes about the writing. I often saw things that were such a perfect example of good writing that I tried to work out how it was done so I could use the technique myself.
So, for example, the show personified the old adage of how character is plot. Cop shows are often generic with the detectives running round picking up clues until they stumble upon the killer, and there’s little to distinguish them from any other cop show. You could probably put Lewis (which is starting a new season tonight) in a Midsomer murder and he’d solve the crime in exactly the same way because in those shows only the plot matters and not the characters.
With early New Tricks, that wasn’t the case. So Brian, with his photographic memory and psychological problems, could always be relied upon to go all obsessive over some detail in the case and delve ever deeper into something nobody else cares about until he finds the vital clue. Gerry, with his dubious past, would break every rule in the book in his attempts to pay off his debts, chat up any women involved in the case, and so get to a truth that conventional means would miss. Jack would use dogged police work to break down suspects and Sandra would have the impossible task of keeping everyone in line. In short, only that particular cast could have solved the murder because only they would investigate in that manner.
Sadly, later New Tricks failed to do that. Brian’s like-for-like replacement in Danny has a photographic memory, but aside from spouting trivia I can’t remember him ever using that knowledge to solve anything. Gerry’s effective replacement in Steve is apparently another maverick cop, but you’d only know that he was a rule-breaker because it was mentioned several times in his first episode. After four years he’s yet to do anything maverick. In her first episode Sasha was sold as a younger version of Sandra and aside from getting the same lines as Sandra did, she’s never once wrestled with the difficulties of keeping retired policemen and their antiquated methods in line. Ted hasn’t had long in the show, but aside from knocking on wood, I’m not sure he’s been given a character.
Then there’s the difficulty of mixing family life and work life. All cop shows try to detail the out-of-hours activities of the cast, and New Tricks managed that better than most. The key to making it work appeared to me to be that the show always ensured that an element in the home scenes helped to solve the murder. So, when Brian’s wife Esther is injured and in bed, all the scenes of Brian trying and failing to look after her came into focus when Esther spotted a vital clue that Brian had missed. The same was always true for Gerry’s tortured love life, Sandra’s even worse love life and Jack using his monologues with his deceased wife to work things out in his mind.
With the more recent series, that perfect mixture has been lacking simply because there’s no link between the home and work life meaning the home scenes come over as filler and soap-like. Steve has troubles with his son, but they have nothing to do with the cases. Danny had a daughter who looked promising, but she disappeared to be replaced by a girlfriend who is a pathologist, thereby ensuring that their home scenes ought to help the case, but they never do. Ted and Sasha both mention that they have a life outside of work, but that’s as far as it goes.
Then there’s the old adage about it being better to show rather than to tell. Any writer wanting to know how to do it could just watch an early New Tricks episode. For example, in the Ice Cream Wars episode, Jack doesn’t agree with the assumption that a motorbike rider seen fleeing the crime at speed had to be a young man. So he invites the rest of the cast down to the car park. They arrive and are nearly run over by a man on a motorbike riding around like an idiot. Just as they’re shouting at the rider, Jack whips off his helmet to show them that the rider they assumed was a young idiot is pushing eighty.
Then there’s Brian, who reckons the chemicals being delivered to the ice-cream factory could really be narcotics. So he buys the chemicals, mixes them up at home, blows up his kitchen, gets kicked out by his wife and chewed out by his boss for making drugs.
This is followed by Gerry who reckons the narcotics are being sold from the back of ice-cream vans. So he uses his young daughter’s enthusiasm for becoming a copper to persuade her to buy drugs. Then Sandra has to work out how to proceed when the case has been solved but only because one of her team has built a crystal-meth lab in his kitchen and the other has made his daughter buy drugs. Once that’s all been sorted out the hour running time is up and it’s been filled with entertaining scenes that are all show and no tell.
The same can’t be said of the later episodes. Recently, it’s been all telling. Nowadays, Ted would report that the rider didn’t have to be young, Danny would declare that the chemicals are a drug and Steve would respond that they're being sold from the back of the van. This method of relaying information gets the story told quickly, but it sure is dry.
Sadly, the less effective writing in the later years has often made me ponder on what doesn’t work rather than what does and I had something of a revelation recently about where the recent years have gone wrong. It’s something that I’ve never thought about before because it’s so fundamental, but I reckon it amounts to the fact that murder mysteries work best when there’s a murder. This sounds a bit daft, but it’s something that’s often been missing in recent years.
The standard solution to the mystery in the show’s later years has been that the killer and the victim argued. The victim tripped up, hit his head on an inconveniently-placed hard object, and died instantly. Then the killer ran away.
With this scenario, the killer has no motivation for the death so they don’t try to cover anything up and there are few clues. As a result, the cops can’t actually solve the mystery because there is no mystery. So the whole hour is flat and the plot doesn’t develop. Then, with five minutes to go, the killer realizes the episode is about to end and confesses. In other words, when the killer in a murder mystery has a strong motivation to kill, the plot will almost inevitably be strong, but when there is no motivation, everything will probably meander along aimlessly.
That scenario is one of many weak situations that have plagued the last few years. It’s also one of the reasons the show has been better in its final year as they’ve only once used the the-victim-fell-over-and-hit-his-head solution while in most of the stories the killer has actually had a strong motivation.
Anyhow, I’ll stop ruminating and say goodbye to the New Tricks team. Thanks for all the good times and no matter that I haven’t enjoyed it much recently, there’s always the early episodes to enjoy such as my favourite opening teaser here.