Last night I watched the eighth tale of “Trial and Retribution,” which is a Lynda LaPlante series. I ordered all of them that are on DVD so far. Shocking as “Prime Suspect” was, this series is up to it, though nothing comes up to Helen Mirren IMHO. I don’t know whether there’s another later series that’s “even worse.” This sequence turns out to be about halfway through a series that has lasted at least until 2009. It’s a “long-form” series, airing three hours on two nights in sequence. That’s roughly like a double-feature movie. Part of the success is LaPlante’s experience as an actual police officer and the contacts she made and part is several central heat-generating characters, so that the focus can switch from one to the other. And part of it is that the stories are located in the unending dissonance between justice and the law, as are most of these cop series. Modern versions almost always portray flawed cops to go over the various lines.
The central character is, as the actor puts it, a “mean little old-fashioned intolerant and isolated Scots bastard who is a sentimental marshmallow when it comes to his ex-wife, his kids and his mother.” All of whom richly deserve to be dumped IMHO. He represents conservative morality, the conviction that he should go after whomever he personally considers to be the “bad guys,” without much consideration for the law or reflection on whether he is becoming corrupted himself.
In the stories he is opposed to relatively sane -- except for driving ambition -- young blonde women who are presumably the new sort of cop, though I haven’t noticed that type around here very much. “Eight” (the cast and crew refer to the stories by their number in the series) has an interesting theme (they have themes). Each of these types is relatively impervious to true, intimate love. In fact, the blonde is frigid or so the men tell her. She wants to be irreproachable, impervious, a modern bureaucratic cop. But that means stuffing rage.
In between is “Satch,” who is just normal, though he has an interesting face, the guy who witnesses, buffers, and sometimes looks on astonished. He is the confidante of both main characters. The rest of the officers move in and out of the same roles. We often see the rather foolish men acting like frat boys (gloating over porn) while the resigned motherly women shake their heads and go on with the work. In the course of solving two murders, the two main characters come up against the workers in a bordello and each of them is cracked open. Painfully. Problematically. Delicately.
The lady who captures the flinty Scot heart is a shapeshifter: one moment a mother, the next a dominatrix; once an innocent immigrant au pair, now a murderer. Story on top of story on top of story. But the actor who is meant to thaw the lady cop is Colin Salmon. remarkable enough that he is a running character in the James Bond series and was even discussed to play the first Black Bond. He's an excellent foil for Helen Mirren when he plays opposite her. At six-three with a Black Velvet voice and a “trust me” manner, he's a jazz trumpeter and drummer, able to convey an entirely seductive menace. The clinical attempt to revive his "partner" in the hospital after her fall is echoed by his personal attempt to give the "kiss of life" to the near-drowned blonde heroine at the end. (This woman seems totally unable to defend herself -- she has no moves.) The “conceit” is that he strikes a nerve in the icy lady cop. He is a more benign than usual version of a LaPlante enthralling charismatic villain.
When a writer creates a character, that invention must have both a spine and a hook. The spine is the main driving force of the personality; the hook is what pulls it out of its path. (Money, love, fear, ambition.) It’s possible for a character to have many hooks, different ones for different plots. But one spine. LaPlante plots give her actors a lot of room to explore around these two components. We should be able to see the spine pretty easily (though there might a spine beneath or within the spine) but the hook is a different matter. It keeps us guessing and watching. How strong is it? Where does it come from? Are there hooks pulling in a different direction?
The little Scots actor (actually a skilled Shakepearean theatre actor and a director) tells us that LaPlante watches carefully to see what the actors do in one episode, then picks up on the details and inspirations and feeds them back into the next episode. These stories are organic in that way, unfolding from the previous motivations of the actors into the plot structure of the writer as we get closer and closer to the heart of the character, which I would propose are where the hook connects with the spine. If a person were doing psychotherapy, I presume this is what the therapist would note for case files, but in a theatrical production the process is done by a group, which means it will be much more influenced by the culture -- not necessarily the culture at large (surely by now we all realize how many competing “cultures” there are) but the culture around the production. For instance, there is a polarizing and paranoid conviction about social class. Interestingly the very high class people are connected to two environments: the grand old English mansions you can buy picture books about and the fabulously severe and glassy condos in skyscrapers. (In Hollywood they are cantilevered over canyons.) Looking at these places is part of the fun. The scripts love to smuggle in a bordello or a topless dance club. This one made me giggle over the resemblance to the one in the Japanese cartoon movie patronized by corrupt vegetables. I wonder whether one influenced the other.
LaPlante often begins with an innocent child, unconsciously going along, when something intercedes. In the case a woman falls out of the sky. The child this time is not a victim, though he’s echoed by an autistic child in the plot. The “figure” or image of the blue satin woman falling out of the sky is a tour d’force -- I have no idea how they managed it. Then that blue satin woman is echoed by a blue satin eiderdown that was wrapped around the body of the falling woman’s mother. These images are so compelling that the script lets them be unrealistic. The eiderdown shows up in an evidence box smelling of heavy perfume, even though the bodies (her dog was there, too) were found almost completely decomposed and stinking. The eiderdown is as pristine as the elegant gown on the falling woman. We are asked to believe (in the end) that a small but determined woman can get the victim, who is quite substantial, into her clothes and over a high wall around the upper-story patio from which she fell, throwing her far enough out to plummet down the middle of the road. It is so poetic, so vivid, that we ask no questions.
Should we? How seriously should we take such a series? Are they genuine and sincere comment on the world or are they just a spectacular distraction? In the end we are Satch, watching, half-confounded, trying to figure it all out.