Tuesday, 1 October 2013

A bit of a whinge about New Tricks

The final episode of series 10 of New Tricks airs tonight. Once, the end of a series was a sad occasion only enlivened by the fact I knew I’d watch all the episodes again, probably several times, before the new series started. That’s no longer the case as these days I struggle to watch the episodes even once. Sadly, this once classic cop show is no longer must-see television.

After eight glorious years of crime solving with a smile, series 9 had a massive drop in quality. I’d hoped this would be a blip and series 10 would bounce back, but it didn’t and if anything, this year is even weaker than the previous year. It pains me to slate what was once one of my favourite tv programs, but this is no longer the show where Sandra shot only one dog and so got landed with a bunch of dinosaur cops. That show had a winning formula.

Sandra was the officer who had to deal with the antics of her subordinates while trying not to annoy the officers whose cases were being re-opened. Jack was the melancholic ex-hard man who employed rigorous police work. Brian was the troubled obsessive who used his photographic memory. Gerry was the jack-the-lad who used his dealings with the underworld. They all had personal lives. Sandra’s was troubled, Jack’s was sad, Brian’s was loving, and Gerry’s was complicated. Every week they’d get a cold-case crime and it’d feature an interesting slice of history. The cops would solve it using their own distinctive styles with plenty of wit while wrestling with their home lives that would sometimes hinder and often help them solve the crime.

The show was a perfect example of how to take a potentially dry concept and make it work. It did this by concentrating on characters and by the simple process of applying the old adage that it’s better to show than to tell. One good example is the classic old episode featuring a gang war between rival drug dealers who deal from ice cream vans. Jack reckons the assumption that the bloke who was seen driving a motorbike recklessly was a young man could be wrong, but he doesn’t tell anyone. Instead he invites everyone down to the car park and then drives around on a motorbike like an idiot. When Brian works out that the strange chemicals at the ice cream factory could be used to make a drug, he doesn’t tell anyone. Instead he builds a laboratory at home and inadvertently destroys Esther’s beloved kitchen. When Gerry figures out the gangsters are dealing from the back of ice cream vans, he doesn’t tell anyone. Instead he gets his daughter to buy some drugs.

This technique of showing the crime being solved was so much more entertaining than the dry facts and led to comic scenes, a good mix of family and work life, and a perfectly integrated mix of character and plot. This formula worked for eight years, but then it was replaced. I presume the logic must have been that to avoid the show being too strongly identified with lead characters who were leaving, the show needed to become less character based so it could continue with a new cast. If that’s the reason, it’d have been better to end the show on a high and then create a spin-off, because the new formula is bland.

The formula now is for four cops, who don’t have much of an existence outside work, to solve cases in a routine manner, which usually involves them talking through the facts in the office, fingering a suspect, and then waiting for them to confess. Sandra is no longer irritated by the antics of her subordinates, because they don’t get up to any antics and neither do they have any definable idiosyncrasies, and any quirks they do present are inconsistent.

It never used to be like this. The pilot episode was a master class in how to define characters instantly with a single line of dialogue. Sandra got her ‘you shoot one dog’ line and you knew how she’d react to any situation. Jack got to look through a list of potential applicants to the new team and declared them, ‘Dead, dead, dead, might as well be, dead, dead, will be if get hold of him.’ Brian got asked if Jack was mad and replied, ‘He isn’t, but I am.’ And Gerry in his interview reacted to the news of who his new boss would be with the declaration that, ‘I met him once. I broke his jaw.’ In each case, in a matter of a few words, you got to know the character, and the writers stuck to that character for eight years. That’s no longer the case.

New man Steve was defined in his first episode as having a broad accent and being sprightly. He was always the first in the office in the morning, he was a maverick, and he has a backstory of being on an epic quest to find his long-lost son. This is a good profile for a character, except it rarely gets used. His accent softened after one episode. Sometimes he’s lively, but most of the time he slopes around like everyone else. Sometimes he’s a maverick, but at other times he tells others off for breaking the rules. And he finds his son by looking in the telephone directory. The end result is that Steve’s lines could have been written for anyone because none of those lines are consistent with a defined character. This is doubly irritating because Denis Lawson is a great actor who is worth watching in anything, but here he has nothing to do but explain the plot.

The same could be said of new-boy Danny, whose lines sound like they could have been written for Brian. Then there’s Sandra’s replacement, whose one interesting feature is being happily married to a senior officer, except that’s removed as she immediately separates. And finally there’s Gerry, who no longer gets to do anything that Gerry once did. It’s actually a shock when in one episode the show remembers that Gerry is scared of trees. That joy is short-lived when for no good reason he’s abandoned in a forest and he stumbles across the killer who just happens to be hiding a body and so he promptly confesses, which brings up the last main irritation this year of stories that are mediocre at best.

The opening two-parter is a one hour story padded into two hours, presumably to justify the budgetary needs of filming in Gibraltar. The only good point is that this sets up a reason for Brian leaving, except the groundwork is abandoned for his last two episodes. Episode 3 has the novel approach of not having a plot. Instead, after setting up a situation nothing develops until the hour drifts to an end. Episode 4 goes to the opposite extreme with a convoluted plot that makes no sense. Brian and Esther deserved a better way to be written out, just like Jack last year, although thankfully later on Sandra is written out with some emotion in a simple story that gives her character time to breath.

Episode 5 introduces Danny and is probably the best written episode all year, but any good feeling that generates erodes quickly as the rest are poor. Worse, many themes such as politics and badly treated migrant workers are rekindled ideas from previous, better years. There’s also a heavy reliance on the victim being accidentally killed rather than being murdered. Unlike the early days this is always shown in flashback, which shows a lack of confidence on the part of the writers as all the culprits are weak people with weak motivations and we have to see the scene to understand it.

In brief, for most of its run this show had charm and wit, but now it's dreary and routine. The show may continue with a new cast for a few more years, but it’ll be New Tricks only because it says so during the bouncy opening theme song. And I assume that song will get replaced before long, as it no longer fits the show.

Having said that, I still hope that next year with the new cast the show can rekindle the glory years. All it’ll need to do to achieve this is to get back to basics by creating defined characters and then showing them solving the crime.

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