When I was a kid the cop shows that were on television featured, more often than not, the cop on the beat. Adam-12 was atypical of the type of show that you'd see – handsome uniformed officers who in the space of a half hour would respond to a number of radio calls and have to deal with situations that required little or no investigation. Over time the genre evolved and expanded its horizons until today where we now have everything from shows that deal with specific units within police forces like the forensic units of the CSI franchise as well as the more standard investigating police procedurals.
Of course no matter what, the modus operandi still remains the same as it did back in the days of the uniformed officer driving his black and white, solving the crime, and maintaining law and order. Shows still start with a crime having been committed and the police force doing their best to solve who done it. The biggest change that's occurred in the years of police dramas is how much time is spent with the police officers outside of their life on the job site. Instead of the characters being one dimensional figures representing the forces of good, they now lead as complicated, if not more complicated lives than the rest of us.
Television writers caught on to the fact that being a police officer and around criminal activity for a large percentage of your day could potentially have an effect upon your existence away from the office. Whether a cop wants to or not he will bring his work home with him from the office as one can't just shut off what one has seen during a day of dealing with anything from murder to traffic offences. This has led to the creation of police dramas with scripts that take into account more than just the character's work life, and that include individuals from the law enforcement officer's home life.
One of this new breed of police procedure shows was the British cop show, starring Scottish actor Tom Conti, DNA, that dealt with the high tech world of modern forensic science. Forensic scientists search a crime scene for microscopic physical evidence that can be used as proof of a person's involvement in a crime. In DNA Tom Conti plays Joseph Donavan, a driven forensic science cop with his own history of medical problems, and a dedication to the job that causes strife on the home front.
While it did air on Canadian television, there probably weren't many opportunities for North American audiences to see this show. Acorn Media has gathered together the first two seasons of the show into a two DVD package, DNA: Complete Series One & Two. Disc one contains the two parts of what must have been the pilot movie from season one, and disc two contains the three episodes from season two.
Now, I'm not familiar with the North American versions of these types of shows so I have little basis for comparison, but what struck me most about this series was the balance that was struck between science, character, and plot in the scripts. The science is important of course, because that's what the characters use to solve the mysteries and it's the evidence upon which the plots turn. Yet it's not the be all and end all of the shows, and it's also shown to be as fallible as the people who use it, as easy to manipulate as any other type of evidence, and not the great miracle for crime solving that it sometimes is made out to be.
Science is important to the plots because that's what the lead character does for a living. Yet instead of only having it used as the means by which the mysteries are solved, the plots deal with the various problems that face forensic scientists when actually trying to solve a crime. Evidence that appears black and white in a laboratory, ends up not being any use in court. A fingerprint proving somebody's presence at the scene of a crime doesn't necessarily make them the culprit because there is no way of dating when the fingerprint was left. Was the blood that spattered the coffee cup with the finger print sprayed there at the same time the finger print was left, or did it happen some time later?
Of course what's most important in all of these dramas are the characters and DNA is no exception. When we meet Joe Donavon (Tom Conti) he has been retired from the force for a number of years, and we find out that he hadn't left under the best of circumstances. He had made an error on his last case that resulted in both someone's acquittal and his own nervous breakdown. He's now a successful writer, but still not fully recovered from his breakdown. When faced with stressful circumstances he dissociates to such an extent that he doesn't remember where he was or what he did for great stretches of time.
Donavon is called out of retirement because a murder occurs and not only does the crime scene look exactly like the one which caused his mental breakdown, his name is written in blood on the wall of the victim's apartment. As Donavon is slowly drawn back into the world of police work, we are introduced to his wife and son, and see how both his job and his health issues have impacted upon their lives and the relationship he has with each of them. He is still suffering from dissociative episodes so severe that when a second body shows up in the exact same circumstances he can't be sure that he's not the culprit. That both men turn out to have been his wife's lovers only makes him more of a suspect.
What I've always preferred about British television over its North American counterpart, is British TV's willingness to take time to develop the relationship between the characters. Kate, Donavon's wife, is shown to have every reason to feel alone and neglected. On the other hand she also truly loves her husband and is incredibly frustrated by his seeming unwillingness to talk with her. She didn't go to the other men for love, but for companionship. Samantha Bond as Kate does a remarkable job of communicating the confusion, frustration, and anger of her character, while still being very convincing expressing her character's love for her husband.
Tom Conti is a wonderful actor and his work as Joseph Donavon is a testimony to his craft. While we sympathize with Joe as he tries to come to grips with his health issues and hope that he solves the crime, he is not the most likeable of people. His tendency to be egocentric and to be a workaholic are a combination that ensures he ignores those around them unless they do something drastic to catch his attention. Conti is able to communicate all of this to his audience simply by having his character go about his business. He is the type of actor who is so comfortable in the skin of the character he is portraying that he can communicate information about that character with a twitch of an eyebrow or the lifting of a shoulder.
DNA, like so many other British television shows, is a well acted and smartly scripted show that relies on intelligence more than shock to hold an audience's attention. The box set of DNA: Complete Series One & Two available from Acorn Media as of May 13,2008 and gives viewers in North America an opportunity to enjoy all five episodes of this well executed police drama. An opportunity that fans of good television won't want to miss out on.