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Friday, May 6, 2011

NEW TRICKS: SEASON FOUR -- DVD review by porfle

If you're a newcomer to the BBC-TV show, NEW TRICKS: SEASON FOUR is as good an introduction to it as any.  If you're already a fan, the eight episodes in this 3-disc set from Acorn Media will be a welcome continuation of the ongoing adventures of the Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad.

Headed by Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman), the UCOS team consists of over-the-hill retired cops being given a second chance to tackle cases that remain frustratingly unsolved.  The oldest, ex-Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Halford (James Bolam), is still haunted by the vehicular murder of his dear wife, talking to her daily beside the shrine he's built in his backyard. 

Ex-Detective Chief Inspector Gerry Standing (Dennis Waterman, who sings the show's opening theme, "It's Alright"), is a multiple divorcee who still fancies himself a ladies man.  The team's technical wizard and memory expert, ex-Detective Inspector Brian Lane (Alun Armstrong, THE MUMMY RETURNS), is a psychologically unbalanced nutcase who keeps his patient wife Esther (Susan Jameson) busy looking after him.

Instrumental in making this show so much fun to watch are the interactions between the lead characters, with Sandra often at wit's end with her eccentric, rule-bending charges.  Normally a by-the-book cop, she often has to look the other way as they solve cases using methods that aren't always strictly proper.  While sharp-tongued and abrasive toward each other, they also have an underlying comradery that gives the show a genuine warmth at times. 

Most of all, however, these quirky characters are consistently, delightfully funny, and the main attraction of NEW TRICKS is that it's such a fun "hang-out" show.  Spending quality time with this team is enough, so it's an added bonus that the stories are so compelling.  It's a lot of fun watching them put their heads together and draw on their extensive experience to solve the baffling mysteries assigned to them, always with their own personal lives supplying subplots that keep things even more interesting.

This is especially true in the first episode, "Casualties", beginning with the resolution of last season's cliffhanger in which Halford discovered the identity of his wife's killer and, bent on revenge, was last seen bearing down on him in his car.  What happens next lands the entire team in the hospital, where they stumble onto a 10-year-old unsolved case in which three patients died mysteriously. 

"God's Waiting Room" finds Sandra on the verge of placing her mother into a posh retirement home until she finds out that one of its occupants died mysteriously a year earlier.  When she's refused permission to investigate, the guys go into action on their own and place Halford into the home for some undercover spying.  In "Ducking & Diving", a missing armored truck is discovered at the bottom of a submerged quarry and Sandra gets a chance to do some scuba diving, putting herself in grave danger. 

"Nine Lives" concerns the death of an old woman who left her fortune to her cats, to the chagrin of her children who become suspects in her murder.    "Powerhouse" features the Battersea Power Station, famous for its appearance on the cover of Pink Floyd's "Animals", where some obsolete English currency meant for incineration has been stolen and an innocent man is hanged for the murder of one of the thieves. 

In "Buried Treasure", Brian's dog Scampi digs up a skeleton during a walk in the park.  Although it turns out to be 600 years old, the team finds evidence of a more recent burial which may be attributed to a crime boss once hounded by Gerry Standing.  The unsolved murder of a photo lab assistant in "Father’s Pride" marks the return of Emily, who made a dramatic appearance last season as a woman who believes herself to be Gerry's illegitimate daughter.  While secret DNA testing proved otherwise, Gerry doesn't have the heart to tell her and has begun to regard her as his real daughter, which causes problems when the rookie cop chooses Sandra as her mentor and goes undercover on their current case.

Season finale "Big Topped" takes place in a circus, which delights everyone except circus-phobe Halford.  The long-ago death of a magician locked inside his trailer and burned away as though by spontaneous combustion (leaving only his feet!) is just the beginning of a scintillating tale that will eventually become a painful turning point in Sandra's life.  The season ends with her making a traumatic discovery about the death of her own father when she was fourteen, whereupon she's horrified by the extent of Halford's surprising involvement.  As the episode fades out on a rare ultra-dramatic note, we're left unsure of what shape the team will be in by season five. 

Here and throughout the season, each of the lead characters is given ample time in the spotlight.  The wise but terminally grumpy Jack Halford is fun to watch as he pretends to be a doddering old geezer in the old folks' home or reacts in horror at the antics of an aggressive clown, yet serves as a believable mentor for Sandra and is deeply moving in the scenes regarding his late wife.  Gerry Standing's character might've been the stereotypical "male chauvinist", yet he's beloved by his ex-wives and daughters and often shows surprising sensitivity despite his coarse exterior. 

Brian, of course, is a constant delight with his off-the-wall behavior, especially when his long-suffering wife Esther demands that he learn how to drive (and his instructor has a heart attack during the first lesson).  His various obsessions provide endless comedy fodder, such as when he orders matching scuba suits for himself and Esther or takes off after a fleeing suspect on his racing bike and lands in the hospital yet again.  In every episode, the verbal sparring between these vivid characters, with Sandra acting as referee, is endlessly entertaining.

The 3-disc DVD from Acorn Media is in 16.9 widescreen with Dolby Digital stereo and English subtitles.  Sadly, the only bonus feature this time is a short list of cast filmographies.

NEW TRICKS: SEASON FOUR highlights the great combination of sharp-witted comedy, intriguing mystery, and genuinely moving drama that makes this such a satisfying series.  There may be cop shows that are more thrilling, action-packed, and melodramatic, but few of them are such a pure joy to watch.

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