It seems ironic to be writing about a television show that deals with the issue of the glass ceiling women run into in the professional world when the same glass ceiling exists for female actors. Look around and tell me how many really good roles there are for women in film or television that aren't dependent on their looks and or age. How well a woman fills a t-shirt or a bikini on the screen seems to be more important than how well she can create a character or whether she can deliver a line convincingly.
While there has been some progress made in the past few years, you've still less chance of seeing Dame Judi Dench showing up on your television screen than you do the latest bimbo from the pop charts. Even when they do create roles for women, the tendency is to pick a successful type and stick to it. How many more series are we going to see featuring a driven woman who so desperate to succeed in her career that she has no personal life, or even worse has made a right hash of it? Not only has she had to struggle to survive in a "man's world," but there's always at least one man bitterly resentful of her position and determined to bring her down if its the last thing he does.
If I were to tell you the above scenario applied to a British television series focused on the trials and tribulations of a senior police officer whose personal life tends to spill over into her work, your first guess would probably be the former Helen Mirren vehicle Prime Suspect. Well, you wouldn't be too far off, because The Commander comes from the pen of the same person, Lynda La Plante. Acorn Media has released a box set of The Commander: Set 1 with four DVDs each containing an entire episode.
Amanda Burton plays forty-something Commander Clare Blake who, after twenty years on the force, has risen to become the highest ranking woman in New Scotland Yard, the Serious Crime Group Commander and head of the Murder Review Team. Under normal circumstances both these jobs would be considered high profile and high pressure, but with her being the first woman to ever hold either position the ante is upped even higher. Not only does she have to deal with the public scrutiny that comes with the job, there are those within the force who can't wait for her to slip up and are constantly eying her every move on and off the job.
Unfortunately, Commander Blake is her own worst enemy and in the first episode ("Entrapment") she finds herself in a compromising position involving a suspect in a murder investigation, threatening her career and putting her own life in danger. James Lampton has just been released from prison after serving twelve years of a murder sentence. While inside he wrote a book about his rehabilitation and the Commander, the arresting officer in Lampton's case, is very surprised to receive a request to write a forward for the book. She agrees to do so under the impression that the book is only going to distributed among prison officials.
She is shocked to discover the book has been published and is climbing to the top of the bestseller list, but she decides not to make a fuss because all the proceeds from sales of the book are donated to a charity for victims of crime. Still, when two murders are committed with similar MOs (modi operandi) to Lampton and he's picked up for questioning by the police at a book signing, it can't help but be a little embarrassing for Blake.
This causes her to become suspicious of the officer in charge of the case, Detective Inspector Hedges. Commander Blake is currently investigating the shooting of a civilian by police a year ago that Hedges had previously investigated, clearing the officers involved of all charges. The family of the victim have filed a civil suit against the police and all evidence has to be checked and double-checked – including the video from a security camera that captured the whole event and somehow didn't make it into the initial reports investigation.
Up to this point the show had been well-scripted with a few neat plot twist, but any credibility takes a serious beating when Blake begins an affair with Lampton. While she was undoubtedly lonely and vulnerable, I found it hard to believe that any senior police officer would become involved with a potential suspect in a murder case, especially a female officer who has risen to the top as Blake has. The fact that she had been warned by friends and superiors alike to keep her distance from Lampton and yet goes ahead with the affair regardless shows the type of "error in judgement" that would get any police officer in trouble. Sure, she's only human, but any woman who has fought her way to the top and dealt with the type of political bullshit she'd have dealt with would know how that type of slip up could be used against her and that there are plenty willing and prepared to do so.
If the writers are serious about wanting us to sympathize with Clare Blake and identify with her struggles as a "woman in a man's world," they have a strange way of doing it. That's not the type of behavior any police force would tolerate in any officer, male or female. By trying to mitigate on her behalf by making the officer in charge of the Lampton investigation a slimeball with a vendetta against her, suggesting that she has been set up, in no way changes the fact that he's right when he says that he doesn't have to do anything as she's bringing herself down.
While I applaud any efforts made to provide good television or film roles for female actors, especially those which depict women in "non-traditional" careers, it would be nice if it could be done without turning a very serious situation into a cliché or a cheesy soap opera. The glass ceiling is very real in all areas of the work force, and in traditionally male-dominated professions like the police force it remains especially true. Creating a formula for television serials out of a real social problem doesn't do either the situation or those who are actually struggling with it any justice.
When Prime Suspect was first televised nearly twenty years ago, it was a very real and gritty piece of work that was groundbreaking in its depiction of a mid-level female police officer and her struggle to advance her career. The Commander, in comparison, is merely turning over the same old soil and compounding its failings by undermining the lead character's credibility for the sake of soap opera plot lines. The fact that they've chosen to combine that with lurid crimes scenes complete with the naked bodies of rape victims makes the whole show reek of sensationalism and exploitation.
The DVD box set The Commander: Set 1 comes with special features including interviews with the creator of the series and the actor who plays Clare Blake (Amanda Burton), as well a featurette on the supporting cast – none of which contain any surprises. The production values are top notch; Dolby Stereo sound and widescreen picture make this as professional as anything you'd see in the theatres. Unfortunately there's nothing any of those features can do to save the series from the flaws in the script and the overall concept that make it at best a poor imitation of other shows of a similar nature.