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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
n a TV age when we are continually exposed to the grittiness of shows like “The Shield” and “Criminal Minds,” a series like “The Last Detective” is quite an antidote to the seemingly never-ending bleakness of cop procedurals. Based on a series of books by writer Leslie Thomas, the show follows the cases of Detective Constable Dangerous Davies, played by Peter Davison of “Doctor Who” and “All Creatures Great and Small” fame. “Dangerous” is an ironic nickname for the guy, as he’s anything but. It almost seems to be a joke on the viewer as well, since over the course of four seasons and 17 installments, we never actually learn his real name. (Is it somehow possible that his first name is Dangerous?) Dangerous is the kind of underdog that you can’t help but root for. He is the butt of many a joke from his colleagues, his superior hates him, and he routinely gets shit on by life. And yet he’s an immensely likable guy – a regular Joe completely unlike most of the cops seen on TV. I dare say that maybe he’s even Britain’s version of Columbo.
In the pilot, Davies is assigned a rather mundane task by his superior, DI Aspinall (Rob Spendlove), and in the process stumbles across an unsolved crime dating back to the ‘80s. He proceeds to solve it, of course, and in doing so earns the ire of Aspinall, who declares Davies to be “the last detective I’ll ever think of, unless it’s the crap jobs.” And so it goes and the series begins. There isn’t any hard formula to “The Last Detective,” and there is quite the variety of cases and situations thrown at Dangerous over the course of the show’s run. What the cases invariably do have in common is the amount of sympathy the writers manage to elicit for the criminals. At the end of nearly every single case, you almost feel sorry for the villains (if you can even call them that), which is perhaps the triumph of this series centered around a lead character such as Davies, as the wrap-ups always makes for an interesting parallel to Davies himself.
When Dangerous isn’t solving crimes, he’s dealing with his ex-wife, Julie (Emma Amos). The couple remains on good terms with each other, and share custody of a Saint Bernard, so Davies is constantly stopping by to take the massive beast for walks in the park and so forth – many of which are spent with his best friend, Mod (Sean Hughes). Mod and Dangerous make for a whimsical pairing, as the two seem to have little in common. In contrast to Davies, Mod hasn’t a care in the world, he hops from job to job with reckless abandon, and he always manages to score with the hottest girl in the pub, despite the fact that he’s an utter goofball. Mod should be an inspiration to any guy who ever felt inadequate, as he is TV proof that a little bit of charm can go a long way. As the series progresses, so do the characters, and after a while even Aspinall begins to develop a kind of respect for Davies. And by the fourth and final season, the entire series is firing on every cylinder. The five stories in that season – which include Davies investigating a possible snuff film, a secret gentlemen’s club, and the death of a stand-up comic – are all top notch. It’ll definitely leave you wanting more, but alas, there are apparently no current plans to revisit the concept.
What really makes the show work, however, is Davison. After starring in “All Creatures” and “Who,” Davison sort of slipped under the radar throughout the ‘90s and his services weren’t terribly in demand. But after returning to TV in the highly successful show “At Home with the Braithwaites,” Davison really came back with dramatic vengeance, and “The Last Detective” is further proof that he’s one of the best actors working in British television today. This series is more hit than miss, but even if a storyline isn’t quite up to par, it remains immensely watchable simply because of his presence. It’s also worth mentioning that even though the entire series adds up to only 17 episodes, the running time for each is around 70 minutes, and the pilot is around the 95 minute mark, so really what you’ve got here is a series of mini-movies, rather than just a TV show.
Special Features: Aside from an interview with Davison, there’s only one other extra on here, but it’s a big one. Back in 1981, a movie version of the first Thomas novel (which was also the basis for the pilot on this set) was made. It starred Bernard Cribbins as Dangerous and it is included on Disc Nine of this set. The movie isn’t anywhere near as good as the series, and it’s much different in feel and tone from the pilot, even though it’s essentially the same story. Nevertheless, it makes for fascinating viewing after seeing the modern take on the same material. Kudos to Acorn for including this bit of TV history as it’d likely be tough to track down if it wasn’t presented here.