Tuesday, October 4, 2016

"Saying Goodbye To Old Friends"

Is it daft to mourn the loss of fictional characters?

(I use the word “daft” deftly as I am mourning the loss of English fictional characters.)

New Tricks, a serio-comic police procedural aired on our local PBS station for numerous  seasons.  I liked it right from the beginning.

The show’s characters include Sandra – a thirtyish, police service careerist whose ambitions are derailed by the unfortunate shooting of a dog during a hostage situation.  Sandra is subsequently exiled to run “UCOS” – the “Unsolved Crimes and Open Case Squad” – so it should really be “UCOCS” but, you know… – supervising three recently retired detectives, brought back to investigate long dormant “cold” cases, the conceptual premise being that their extended experience and instinctive “street smarts” can crack the case after modern crime-fighting methods have failed.  They, of course, end up succeeding gloriously every episode.  (On TV, “outsiders” invariably do, while the “insiders” keep arresting the wrong people.  Though they continue keeping their jobs.)   

You might recall my mentioning that, for me – and I imagine for others as well – what definitively sold me on the premiering The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the moment when, after Mary pluckily stands up for herself during a job interview, Lou, with detectable relish, proclaims,

“You’ve got spunk!... I hate spunk!”

(And then he hires her after she displays a characteristic he hates which I do not exactly understand but it was a memorable moment before I thought about it.)

For me, there was a paralleling introductory “memorable moment” in New Tricks. 

I no longer recall the exact context, but at the end of the pilot episode there is a “mystery-solving” celebration at a Chinese restaurant. 

The restaurant’s table includes a revolving “Lazy Susan” in the middle of it, to facilitate sharing the Chinese delicacies.  At one point in the conversation, the aging detectives abruptly clear away the dishes, loading the “Lazy Susan” with bottles of prescription medicines each is currently taking.  That’s a lot of medicine!

(Why they were carrying their medications around, I have no idea.  But it yielded an evocative image as to who they were and the (identifiable) stage of life they had attained.) 

The show’s stories were often too (unnecessarily) complicated for us to follow, (possibly more insufficiently processed – Read: sloppy – than ingeniously configured.)  But we loved the characters, all interestingly damaged enough through time to hold our attention and inevitably capture our hearts.

Jack, older and suitably mentor-ish, spoke to his late wife Mary in their back-garden “memorial”, Mary having been mown down during a suspicious (later proven deliberate) “hit-and-run.”

Brian, an obsessive-compulsive alcoholic was a congenital misfit with a genius for “piecing things together”, resulting from painstaking, computer generated discoveries.

Jerry, the thrice-married, ostensible “Ladies Man” had helpful netherworld connections and a practiced “nose” for criminal deception.

(Let us take a parenthetical moment here to acknowledge that no demographics-obsessed American network would ever order such a series.  Though it ran in England for twelve years.) 

So here’s the thing. 

New Tricks ended earlier this year.  But before it did, every above-mentioned character had sequentially (hopefully meaning one at a time) departed the series.

Imagine a close relative or friend – after serial visits to the hospital – coming back with a new heart, replacement lungs, a face transplant – they can do those – and an implanted toupee.

I mean, who the heck are they?

Every character has been summarily replaced.  Jack becomes Steve McAndrew (his Scottish accent so impenetrable we needed “Close Captioning” to decipher his dialogue.)  Brian’s supplanted by Dan.  Sandra morphs into Sacha.  And Gerry becomes Ted.

Though the show retained its trademark befuddling storytelling, it felt otherwise like New Tricks from an alien planet.

The surrogate characters are obligatorily flawed and quirky, but less organically so than “How do we make them flawed and quirky?”  The crimes seem less interesting, the personal interludes, demonstrably forced.  

The show’s lights may have gone out this season.  But they had already shot out the preponderance of the bulbs.  Every week as we continued watching, it was (an either spoken or unspoken) ”Where’s Jack?”  “I miss Brian.”  “She’s no Sandra.”  “It’s less fun without Jerry.” 

Jerry Standing.  Doing double-duty, singing the show’s theme song:

“It’s all right, it’s okay,
Doesn’t really matter if you’re old and gra-ay.
It’s all right, I say, it’s okay,
Comin’ to the end of the day.”

New Tricks remained a continuing viewing habit even after the multiple purges.  But losing Jack, Brian, Jerry and Sandra?

It wasn’t all right. 

And it wasn’t okay.

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