I have to admit I'm not a big fan of police procedurals — television shows which follow cops through their day-to-day, but more specifically as they tackle a particularly vexing case. In fact I doubt I've watched anything remotely resembling one on a regular basis since the early days of Hill Street Blues. While I know there are people who swear by Law & Order and others among the wave of new shows of the type that are prevalent on the small screen these days, none of them have ever captured my imagination. Perhaps it's some sort of residual feelings left over from the anti-cop prejudices of my youth, but it takes a pretty special show to make me want to watch people get busted.
One of those shows has just had its most recent series of episodes gathered together as a four-disc box set by Acorn Media for release on Tuesday May 25, 2010. George Gently Series 2 continues where the first season left off in following Inspector George Gently (Martin Shaw), who after the murder of his wife by London gangsters and sickened by the burgeoning corruption among London police officers, relocated to the north of Britain in an attempt to start over again. Ironically, the Detective Sergeant assigned to assist him, John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby), is a slick young officer with dreams of a career in the big city, and who occasionally plays a little fast and loose with his ethics. Set in 1964 against the backdrop of an England adjusting itself to a reduced role in the world's affairs and on the cusp of major social change, each of the four episodes contained in the set not only have the officers solving a case but dealing with the changing world around them.
With each show being nearly feature length, around 80 minutes long, the show's writers have plenty of room to develop not only the plot in each instance, but the relationship between the two men. Interestingly enough, while Gently has a stricter moral code than his junior partner, in some ways he's by far the more liberal of the two. For while Bacchus is attracted to the material aspects of the new era, his world view is still rather limited and as a result is somewhat more close-minded than his boss. There's a place for everything and everything in its place in John Bacchus' world, but Gently knows better, which leaves him open to accepting that things might not always be as they seem. What's wonderful to see is how these characteristics subtly emerge while an episode is unfolding, so we are able to witness the natural development of their relationship and come to understand each of their characters a little better at the same time.
As for the cases themselves they start conventionally enough with the finding of a body and the boys being called in to investigate. However, while there's the usual stuff involved in the solving of the case, like the cross-examination of suspects, interviewing witnesses, checking the sites for any clues that might have been left behind and the following up of any leads that might develop, we spend far more time getting to know all who are involved with case than is normal for these type of shows. In episode one, for example, "Gently With The Innocents," an old estate is in the process of being sold and when the developer who purchased it shows up one morning she finds the former owner dead in the garden. While Gently and Bacchus first suspect the mute gardener as he's found with some of the victim's blood on his shirt, there's far more to the picture then what meets the eye. What is the relationship between the village's police sergeant who was first on the scene, the developer, and the gardener? It also turns out that the old man hadn't wanted to sell but was being forced into doing so by his ex-wife and what looks like a falsified surveyor's report saying the building was in immediate danger of collapse and uninhabitable.
Even the most cursory of looks around the mansion are enough to tell Gently and Bacchus the building is structurally fine, so why all this effort to have it sold and destroyed? Those who benefit most are the young woman who bought the place in order to build a housing development and the ex-wife who, now that the husband is dead, will receive all the money from the sale. Yet as their investigation continues Gently and Bacchus start to peel back the layers of mystery surrounding the building and those who owned it. In the early 1960s the sexual abuse of children wasn't a subject one talked about in proper company — hell, it wasn't even a subject most cops would think about as the idea would be so alien to them. However when they find out the building was once a child's home, and then discover a boarded up basement containing a bed and the former inhabitants' old medical files, the picture that develops, while not pretty, can't be denied.
What's fascinating to watch isn't just the police officers' disgust and anger at what's happened in the building over the years, but their gradual giving in to understanding and then believing what had happened. Not even world-weary Gently who has seen the worst of what big city crime has to offer can get his head around the idea initially. That attention to detail is the hallmark of all the episodes. When social issues we're familiar with, like racism, birth control, and abortion, are brought up in other cases, they are done so in the context of the time period.
During the questioning of a suspect in "Gently In The Blood," Gently has to catch himself from using a racist epithet at one point, and admits to his younger partner how a few years earlier he had found himself making a similar slur and is unable to explain why he did. In another episode, "Gently In The Night," while investigating the death of a pretty young woman their inquiries lead them to a doctor who they discover is guilty of giving birth control pills to unmarried women. It's touches like these that give each of the episodes a verisimilitude that merely using appropriate costumes or driving the right model of car can't match.
Shaw and Ingleby continue their high level of work from series one with Ingleby in particular bringing more depth to his character of John Bacchus this time round. He's like a young child who resents that he can't have everything he wants, but who is gradually growing up and learning that some things are worth more than others. He's still trying too hard to impress his boss for all the wrong reasons, but at least he's no longer making the wrong decisions while doing so. More and more you see him beginning to have doubts about his earlier ambitions of moving to London. While he continues to spout them, you have the feeling it's more from habit than anything else and that he just hasn't figured out a way of backing down from them without losing face. Shaw's Gently continues to bear the scars of his time in London, but he shows a great deal more humour than before. While the anger he displayed in the first series is still there, it's now not as close to the surface and he's become far more open than he was in series one. It will be interesting to see how the two characters develop in future episodes — series three began filming in January, 2010 — and I look forward to seeing what the writers have in store for both of them.
While George Gently Series 2 only comes with some basic special features — text interviews with Ingleby and Shaw, production note, and some historical data about 1964 — you will see some familiar faces making special appearances in some of the episodes. In particular watch for Mark Williams (Mr Weasley from the Harry Potter movies) giving a remarkable performance in "Gently In The Night." While I know people have become used to all sorts of special features and bonuses with DVD packages, in this case the actual material is so special that it doesn't need any bells and whistles to make it any more attractive. You're still not going to find a better police procedural television series anywhere on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.