TV on DVD: Blue Murder -- Set 4 (2009)

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Since the debut of Blue Murder's ITV channel aired pilot back in May of 2003, series creator Cath Staincliffe's unique twist on the U.K.'s beloved "cops and crime" genre (as the website describes it) has consistently proven its staying power, ranking number one in its primetime slot for five successful seasons.

And after the previous three Acorn Media crafted sets of the series satisfied the need of American fans by fulfilling ITV's impressive promise to provide viewers with high-class "global entertainment," Blue Murder has returned once again courtesy of Acorn and ITV in a slim-packaged two-disc set that includes all six episodes of the fifth season which is also airing in the U.K. this year as well. Therefore, it nicely gives us the advantage of being able to keep up in the conversation with our British friends by not being several seasons behind with its stunning release in a cinematic 16:9 aspect ratio and Dolby Digital sound.

Yet, nonetheless, as a newbie to the world of murder investigation squad room unit boss DCI a.k.a. Detective Chief Inspector Janine Lewis (played by award-winning Men Behaving Badly actress Caroline Quentin) and her tight-knit group of Manchester cops, initially I found it a bit hard to get a handle on all of the characters. And this was especially difficult concerning our heroine whom at first I assumed had two kids only to realize by the end of the six episodes, really had four (as the press release explained).

Moreover, I'm additionally still completely in the dark about just what the deal is with her absentee husband who lives overseas and calls to check on the kids but whose role in their lives is never quite defined other than in broad strokes, leading me to wonder about a divorce, a military assignment, etc.

Still, despite my admitted confusion in deciphering the back-story regarding the woman called "Boss" at work (which in itself is a delightful and atypical change to male dominated cop shows especially considering that her superior as well is also a woman) and "Mum" around her kids, I found myself pushing all of that aside rather quickly. And the reasoning behind my acceptance of her character's mystery was simple. Basically, it's because the show's mysteries were so riveting that I admired the way they concentrated more on the psyche of the people involved rather than the grisly details of the crimes themselves... so needless to say I was hooked.

The two part opener to the set titled "Private Sins" is the highlight of the fifth season by far as it's laced with topical issues when the Manchester unit investigates a shady case involving a businessman who exploits foreigners, including an illegal Belorussian immigrant employed as a private detective who is found dead near the show's beginning. Winding up the case with one phenomenal, fast, and unpredictable curve ball-- it's U.K. mystery writing at its finest.

Yet more so-- the show proves far more captivating by taking us into the inner-workings of the officers themselves (a la Cracker) by managing to weave in some daring subplots. The best example of this risk can be found in the misguided affair that DS Tony Shap (Nicholas Murchie) takes part in with a necessary informant he's also hiring in his own sub-investigation which leads to tragic results. Similarly, domestic drama is never far away when the overworked, always-on-call mom Lewis is startled to learn that her son Tom has been truant for most of the school term by forging letters regarding his absentee father.

Once again and similar to Monk-- revealing the double-side of crime solvers who have things so together on the clock but have messy private lives-- we see Quentin's Lewis struggle throughout on her own with various battles involving her (mostly bratty) offspring. And while some of the impromptu, "what's he done now?" or "mum, do I have to?" scenes get a bit repetitive-- another standout episode can be found on the second disc via "This Charming Man" when a local, climbing indie rock lead singer is murdered in his flat.

Obviously she's way out of her depth in Manchester's underground music scene even with her romantic interest-- the flirtatiously loyal colleague and her kids' honorary "uncle," "big brother" "father substitute" Richard (Casualty's Ian Kelsey) going along with her on the assignment. And suddenly instead of causing a problem as a way of adding a bizarre family sitcom style subplot to hide the grim reality of cases filled with bloody murders committed by people who are so blue they see red or are filled with green, Janine Lewis's daughter gives her vital fan based music knowledge that proves to be a key lead to solving the case.

While there's only one ho-hum mystery in the set of six episodes that comprise the 271 minute running time of the set (in the form of "Tooth & Claw" which felt like it was both a step in the wrong direction and a bit too similar to its superior predecessor "Private Sins"), all of the other mysteries are first-rate including one about a cheerleader involved murder (yet with an interesting twist again) and the bravura season-ender "Inside."

When the police department realizes that an innocent man may have been locked up for fifteen years before he was murdered in the prison washroom-- gruesomely drowned in the sink just before he's due for another parole hearing-- Richard takes it upon himself to go behind Janine's back and get permission from her superior Boss DCS Louise Hogg (Saskia Wickham) to go undercover as an inmate.

Of course, when an inmate manages to sneak a cell phone into the premises and covertly snaps a photo of Richard-- the officer's cover is blown and he must fight to get out alive which is much harder when only one contact on the inside and one on the outside know precisely where he's located.

An exceptional way to close out the season with an episode of emotional daring and yet another explosive twist that makes it quite topical again-- while it was slightly bogged down by a subplot involving-- to newbies what seemed like the new walk-on of-- Janine Lewis's college aged son who finds himself in trouble with the law, it offers another great showcase moment for the show's most valuable female supporting player, Belinda Everett as young detective Cat.

And although I became a bit tired of the domestic dramas at Janine's home-front and think that knowledge of the earlier seasons may have helped better endear the feisty, overworked and therefore sometimes a bit irritating character of Janine (who sometimes seems to miss the most obvious things like watching a DVD of a concert recorded the night somebody died etc.) it's still an inventive British cops and crime series.

Additionally, given its refreshingly female-centric angle, some amazingly well-written and surprising puzzles crafted within its hour long format, and a nice supporting cast of characters like Richard, Shap, and Cat (whom I just discovered is new), it's a highly recommended set for mystery fans. Just don't be surprised if you begin using their favorite slang like "CCTV" a.k.a. closed circuit television for security cameras after you watch.

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