|Jul. 15th, 2010 @ 05:03 pm Tim Talks TV: Silent Witness|
I've just finished watching the thirteenth and latest season of the improbably good UK series Silent Witness. I say improbable because, let's face it, good forensics shows are hard to come by. Quincy was good for its time but that time is 30 years past. CSI, NCIS, and Crossing Jordan deal with forensics and science in the most surface-level, populist way possible, usually involving muscular coroners, rainbow colored background lighting in the lab, and obnoxious DNA testing montages with techno beats. A Scottish show called McCallum is the only one I can recommend if you're looking for something closer to actual pathology and forensics.
Another reason this show's entertainment quotient is improbable is because of how rough it started. I crammed all 13 seasons (or series, as they're called outside North America) into 6 months and was therefore able to fully note the arc of the show over the years. When Silent Witness premiered in 1996 it focused primarily on Dr. Sam Ryan, a refreshingly strong female lead whose estranged sister and mother came back into her life after many years. They had a lot of emotional baggage to deal with regarding the 1980s IRA bombing death of Sam's father. Over the course of the agonizingly slow first few seasons, Sam's mother dies, her sister accepts her again, and Sam goes through a parade of interchangeable boyfriends.
My friends gave up on the show early on thanks to the sludgy pacing and Sam's smug, cold demeanor. Besides the rotating cast of disposable love interests, the show had an annoying habit of talking about Sam's dead father and the whole IRA conflict in just about every other episode. It was those early episodes that had me on the verge of giving up too until they finally teamed Sam up with a pair of likeable pathologists, Leo Dalton and Harry Cunningham. As the two male leads began to get more important roles in the show, it became obvious they were phasing Sam out, and they sent her out with a bang at the beginning of series 8 in 2004. The storyline "A Time To Heal" saw Sam venturing back to Ireland to investigate some IRA victims' corpses. She not only discovers new information about her father's death (finally giving us a payoff after years of blathering on about it) but also gets in touch with the son she gave up for adoption decades before.
After Sam's departure the show focused on the boys for a bit before deciding it needed some sexy spice to it and introducing Nikki Alexander. At first I was resistant to this blatant focus group appeasement but Nikki quickly won me over by being intelligent and mature as well as just adorable. She also has an interesting South African background which has made for some diverting trips to Cape Town and other African spots.
This change of venue is one of the show's core strengths. As Home Office Pathologists, the team has leave to work with law enforcement officials in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland (if my research is reliable). This means we often get new locales, unusual cases, and new detectives in nearly every episode. Where the show falters is allowing predictable tropes to invade the narrative. Most of the detectives they work with fit into a very specific mold, the jaded know-it-all. If the pathologist wants to search for more evidence, they immediately refuse it. If the evidence suggests an opposing theory in the case, they reject it.
Pathologist: This man has been murdered.
Detective: Ah ha! It was that bastard Davey Henderson I've been after for years. At last, an air-tight case!
Pathologist: Actually, we found a woman's DNA under the victim's nails.
Detective: Ah ha! So Davey's disguising his DNA by removing the X chromosome. That diabolical genius!
Pathologist: ...and we have CTV footage of the victim's wife committing the murder.
Detective: My god, ol' Davey-boy built a time machine, went back ten years and married that bloke, eh? Well we got him this time!
That brings me to another problem with the show. Are these pathologists or police officers? Now that the show has three leads instead of just Sam Ryan, the problem is less pronounced because they take turns doing it, but the bottom line is that the forensics team is always inserting themselves into the investigation. If the police decide not to hunt down an incredibly tenuous connection between a victim and some missing person, the Home Office folks take it upon themselves to interview witnesses and relatives, jump into harm's way by visiting the ghetto in search of clues, and generally make a mockery of the legal system by circumventing police authority when it suits them.
Luckily, the scenes in the mortuary are routinely excellent. Much care and attention to detail is lavished on the very nude corpses they slice open on the slab. You won't see those parts on the very edited BBC America airings but the original episodes are chock full of nipples and guts in the postmortems. That kind of physical realism sets it apart from other crime shows, and so does the unusual format of having each storyline consist of two 60-minute episodes. It's roughly comparable to three American 40-minute crime show episodes so we get lots of characterization and the occasional tangent that pays dividends in terms of plot. As the 1990s and now 2000s left us, the show has picked up steam nicely and the episodes really move. No more do we have to endure ten minute scenes of Sam Ryan staring mournfully out the window having yet another flashback to her dad's car blowing up. Now the dialogue is better written with clever ripostes between Nikki and Harry -- sexual tension abounds -- and team chief Leo's family troubles seem much more involving and tragic than did Ms. Ryan's.
I shouldn't give the impression that the show doesn't have its flaws though. One major issue they need to address is the way they put Nikki squarely in that tired cliche of Women In Peril. Every season she seems to get kidnapped, held at gunpoint, beaten up or otherwise threatened by a big scary Man, and it's beyond old at this point. And the characters have an uncanny knack of becoming romantically entangled with people who later turn out to be murderers, scam artists, or corpses. Perhaps I shouldn't complain about that last item, as it really does make for watchable television, but the show has so much intelligence in its favor that the drawbacks sting all the more.
Overall, Silent Witness has reached a very good place at this point and I recommend it to crime drama fans. In my opinion you can go right ahead and start with series 7 or 8, skipping the majority of the Sam Ryan years, but that's simply my two cents. Sam was popular enough to get 7 full series to herself as well as a series of paperback mystery books, so all of those fans can't be completely wrong, can they? I guess you'll have to be your own judge on that score. Personally, I have no intention of rewatching the early years, but I sure can't wait for series 14 next year.