DVD Review: The Commander: Set 1
It seem 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 either film or television that aren't dependant on their looks and or age. How well a woman fills a t-shirt or a bikini seems to be more important to the screen 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 or film than you do the latest bimbo from the pop charts. Even when the do create roles for women, the tendency is to latch onto a successful type and stick to it. How many more series are we going to see featuring a driven woman who has been 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 was in regards to a British television series that focused on the trials and tribulation 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 just released a box set of the series' first season with The Commander: Set 1's 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; Serious Crime Group Commander and head of the Murder Review Team. Even 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. For 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 eyeing her every move on and off the job.
Unfortunately Clare is her own worst enemy and in the first episode, "Entrapment" allows herself to be placed in a compromising position that not only threatens her career, but could put her life in danger. Even if she comes through this unscathed the repercussions won't die down overnight, as the senior staff don't look fondly upon officers who become involved with suspects in a murder investigation. James Lampton has just been released from prison where he served twelve years of a murder sentence. While inside he wrote a book about his rehabilitation and the Commander is very surprised to receive a request to write a forward for the book, as she had been the arresting officer on the Lampton case. However, she agrees to do so, under the impression that the book is only going to distributed among prison officials.
Imagine her surprise when she discovers the book has been published and is climbing to the top of the best seller list, but she decides not to make a fuss because all the proceeds from sales of the book are being donated to a victims of crime charitable organization. Still when two murders are committed with similar MO's (Modus Operandi) to that of 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 Clare.
Which is what causes her to become suspicious of the officer in charge of the case, Detective Inspector (DI) Hedges, for she is currently looking into the shooting of a civilian by police a year ago that Hedges had investigated and cleared all the officers involved. The problem is that the family of the victim have filed civil suit against the Police, and all evidence has to be checked and double checked - including a the video from a security camera that captured the whole event and that somehow didn't make it into the initial reports investigation.
While up to this point the show had proven to be well written and interestingly scripted with a few neat plot twist, its credibility takes a serious beating when Clare begins an affair with Lampton. While she's undoubtedly lonely and vulnerable, I found it hard to credit that any senior police officer would become involved with anybody who has the remotest chance of being a suspect in a murder case. This is especially true of a woman officer who has managed to rise to the top as Clare has, meaning she, even more than her male colleagues, would have learned what sort of behaviour could ruin a person's career.
The fact that she had been warned by friends and superiors alike to keep her distance from Lampton as soon as he was charged because of her connection to him from having written the forward to his book and goes ahead with the affair shows the type of "error in judgement" that would see 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 bull shit she'd have dealt with on the way up the ladder, 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 behaviour that any police force would tolerate of any officer man or woman. By trying to mitigate on her behalf by making the officer in charge of the Lampton investigation a slime ball with a vendetta against her, making it seem like she's being 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 roles on television or film for female actors, and especially those which depict women in what are still considered non-traditional careers, it would be nice if it could be done without turning a very serious situation into a cliche or a cheesy soap opera. The glass ceiling is very real in all areas of the work force, and in what were traditionally male dominated professions like policing, the military, and fire fighting it's especially true. However, 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 some twenty years ago, it was a very real and gritty piece of work that was also groundbreaking in its depiction of a mid level female police officer and her struggle to advance in 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 that include interviews with the creator of the series and the actor, Amanda Burton, who plays Clare Blake, and a featurette about the supporting cast - none of which contain any surprises. The production values are top notch, Dolby stereo sound and widescreen picture, make it 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.