Oh, but women have come a long way in London's Metropolitan Police since Lynda La Plante thrust Helen Mirren up the chain of command to DCI in Prime Suspect in 1991, almost 20 years ago. Today -- or back in 2003, when The Commander debuted -- there are enough women high up in the Met that they can afford to be mavericky rulebreakers like Clare Blake ... at least on TV. As commander of the Serious Crime Group -- several steps above the rank of DCI, and the highest-ranking woman in New Scotland Yard -- Blake has to have been a cocky so-and-so to get where she is, and that's probably what fuels her recklessness once she's there.
And that's where this four-disc set of The Commander: Set 1, just out from Acorn Media, begins: with Blake having an affair with a murderer she sent away a decade earlier, a guy just out on early parole and starting to make a splash as an author. (His first book, written in prison and all about his crime and rehabilitation, is already a bestseller.) Yeah, she's that kind of reckless. It's a bit preposterous, actually, this first series, called "Entrapment," but that's what makes it so much fun: Here's a show about a female cop that's just as ridiculous as the ones about the guys have always been. Amanda Burton as Blake? Completely dishy, in a stately, dignified, classy kind of way, of course, which makes it all the more delicious when she gets down and dirty with the killer dude (played by Hugh Bonneville, who's kind of a blurry version of Colin Firth). As you might imagine, this torrid affair does not remain a secret, not among her colleagues -- some of whom, particularly of the male persuasion, are quite jealous of her success -- and not among the press. Oh, dear.
In the exclusive interview with Burton on disc four, she says of the genesis of the series, "We wanted to make a very dark and quite a dangerous character," and she and La Plante -- who wrote all of these stories and serves as producer as well -- have certainly succeeded there. The long-term impact of that one rash indulgence in "Entrapment" keeps coming back to haunt Blake throughout the three succeeding stories in this set: "Virus" and "Blackdog," both from 2005, and "Blacklight," from 2006. Not that that stops her from continuing to do as she pleases, even as her bosses chafe and her professional rivals continue to try to push her into corners. "She's not really bound, I don't think," says Burton, "by what one would hope would be the normal practicing rules of the average policewoman." But this is fantasy, and it is a tasty blow for female equality ... the right to be a self-centered, make-your-own-rules asshole that men have always enjoyed. I'm not saying that's a good thing in real life, for either gender, but as pretend? I love it.
The other great thing about The Commander? It's an excellent example of how British TV does it all so much better, in some ways, than American TV does. These four stories, each spread over two or three episode and ranging in length from 140 to 150 minutes, are more like a series of connected novels than they are discrete episodes of a TV show as American audiences are used to. Each story has enough space to delve deeply into the motivations and mess-ups of its characters, and each story is just as long as it needs to be, no longer and no shorter.
And it must work, from a business perspective, because there were three more series of The Commander in 2007, and another is in progress right now on Britain's ITV.
For now, these four stories are all American audiences have available. Check 'em out: They're better than anything on American primetime at the moment.
MaryAnn Johanson (email me)
film reviews and TV blogging at FlickFilosopher.com