Hello!  You may remember me from such insightful posts as Visual Languages of Manga and Comics and, er, well, just that one, really.  You shall all be subject to me on a regular basis for a while, as Noah has asked me to be a monthly columnist.  At the moment, I’m not sure what direction I’m going to go with this, but I’ll play it by ear.

This month, as I’ve just come back from a vacation to the UK and am still jet-lagged, I’m going to just blather on a bit about a current favorite TV show of mine and why I think one of the main characters is the most fantastic female character I’ve seen in a long, long time.

I threw the first series of the BBC crime drama New Tricks on my Netflix queue after running across a recommendation somewhere on my Livejournal friendslist, and promptly forgot about it until several months later, when it showed up on the doorstep.  My boyfriend and I sat down to watch the pilot one evening, and were addicted from the get-go.

The premise of the show is that Detective Chief Superintendent Sandra Pullman of the London Metropolitan Police (the Met) screws up a hostage situation, shoots a dog, and allows the victim to jump out of a window. She’s had an exemplary career to that point, so she’s punished by being sidelined for a while and placed in charge of a new cold-case unit, the Unsolved Case and Open Crime Squad, or UCOS, which consists of three cranky retired detectives.  Each episode they find a new cold case and investigate, usually solving it.

We usually spot whodunit about halfway through each episode, but this isn’t the sort of show you watch for the intricate plotting and suspense, instead the appeal lies in the personalities, conflicts, and motivations of the ensemble cast.

Which brings me to my point: Sandra Pullman is an amazing character.  She’s a strong, intelligent woman, as befits someone in her position. She’s made sacrifices in her life for her career, but you don’t get the impression that she spends much time regretting them.  She’s fiercely competitive, and is realistically flawed — at the beginning of the series, she has a bad habit of married men, because her competitive nature sees them as a challenge – and is allowed to be irrational about some subjects, such as her parents.  She also has the ability to keep Gerry Standing, Jack Halford, and Brian Lane, her irascible subordinates, in line.

Sandra is also played by an actress, Amanda Redman, in her late 40s at the start of the series, who looks her age, which is refreshing in a day and age when youth is prized above all else in actresses and TV shows often ask us to believe that 20somethings – or actresses who employ surgery and heavy makeup to appear as 20something — hold high-ranking positions that would normally require years and years of experience.  And how much do I love that Redman’s scarred arm – from a burn suffered when she was young – isn’t hidden away, but shown proudly and without explanation on the few occasions when Pullman wears strappy tops?

Pullman holds authority without resorting to her sexuality, either. There’s no doubt that she is a sexual being, but she doesn’t use it to control her subordinates or to wheedle information out of witnesses and suspects.

I’ll quote from The Hathor Legacy’s post on New Tricks, which included a short description of one of my favorite scenes:

There’s a bit from Series 3 that really encapsulates Sandra and her approach to life in general. The episode begins with Sandra dancing salsa with a man. They stop dancing, and he begins giving her instructions. “You move well, but… more attitude, more open, more… sex. And don’t fight me. In salsa, the man is always the leader. The woman is there to follow his signals, his desires. The man is always in control, just like in life. You must cut off your brain. Salsa doesn’t come from here…” He points to his temple. “It comes from here-” (he puts his hand on her chest) “-from the heart.”

Sandra, whose expression has gone from cold to colder during the lecture, replies calmly, “If you don’t take your hand off my tit, I’ll break your wrist.”

New Tricks has its share of flaws – the previously-mentioned ability to guess whodunit being one of them.  As fantastic as Sandra is, there are no other major female characters of her caliber. The only other frequently recurring female character is the long-suffering and supportive wife of one of the detectives (a man who is a bundle of obsessions and neuroses who most people think shouldn’t be allowed out without a keeper). There’s a refrigerator in the past of one of the other detectives, whose psyche is wrapped up in the death of his beloved wife, and the third detective is a ladies’ man (although I do love that he not only remains friendly with all of his ex-wives, but they get along with each other).

There may be a scene or two in which New Tricks technically passes the Bechdel test, but they are few and far between: even most women who are interviewed by the detectives are done so because of their relationship to a man who is somehow involved in the case.  Pullman’s direct supervisor from the second series on, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Strickland, is written inconsistently and sometimes assists the UCOS team, sometimes blocks them, and there seems to be no rhyme nor reason why he does which except for the needs of the current plot.

Overall, however, it’s a wonderful show with compelling characters and well worth watching.

As of the moment, only the first two series are available on DVD in the U.S. Several PBS stations are showing it.  My boyfriend and I were addicted enough to order series 3 and 4 from amazon.co.uk and use Handbrake to rip them to our media server – we do feel strongly about giving money to the creators, so we shun *ahem*ing most programs we watch – at which point we were caught up to the episodes being broadcast on our PBS station.   (Funny story- when we ordered series 3, it was during the time air traffic was grounded because of the Icelandic volcano. We thought it would be several weeks until we got it, but the package showed up on our doorstep six days later. I envision an Amazon employee running alongside the first plane out of the country, cramming the box into the last little bit of space left.)

Series 7 is showing now in the U.K. and on BBC iPlayer, if you can access it, and my local PBS station tells me that they will be getting broadcast rights sometime between January and April of 2011. I look forward to seeing what UCOS is getting up to!

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However, I’m not sure what I’m going to get up to for the next columns I write.  I did note a short discussion of Elfquest in the comments a few posts back; I recently went to my mom’s house and collected the last few boxes I’d left in her attic, which include my well-loved, very beat-up copies of Elfquest from my teenage years. I haven’t looked at them in – gulp – about twenty years. Does a re-read on the order of the re-visits of various books and TV shows over at Tor.com interest anyone?

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