“You shoot one bloody dog in this country!” –Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman.
I love this woman.
One day, Pullman is a fast-tracked British career detective whose team gets a Doberman sicced on them during a raid. She does the only sensible thing – shoot the dog – but that’s not good P.R. for the police department, which seems more focused on getting the public to like them again than, you know, crimes. So the next day, Sandra Pullman finds herself in charge of a cold case squad (UCOS*) and three semi-sane retired detectives. It’s supposed to sideline her, but instead she and her team clear case after case – to the point of making some people uncomfortable.
That’s the premise of New Tricks. It’s a crime procedural that could be depressing if it didn’t have so much comedy built in to keep things light. It’s a standout show by any measure, and especially by how it presents women. In this article, I’ll be talking specifically about Sandra Pullman (other articles will follow).
It’s not easy dealing with old school retired cops who think they can take shortcuts because they’re not in the chain of command (imagine Jack O’Neill wrangling three Daniel Jacksons). Sandra has nothing to hold over them, really, so she has to do what great leaders do: expect people to do what she says, and then assert herself with just the right amount of force when they don’t. She doesn’t wheedle, beg, or threaten with ultimatums; nor does she get emotional about it. She simply uses voice tones and attitudes that make it clear she’s serious and prepared to back up her words somehow – find out at your own peril.
There’s a bit from Series 3 that really encapsulates Sandra and her approach to life in general. The episode begins with Sandra dancing salsa with a man. They stop dancing, and he begins giving her instructions. “You move well, but… more attitude, more open, more… sex. And don’t fight me. In salsa, the man is always the leader. The woman is there to follow his signals, his desires. The man is always in control, just like in life. You must cut off your brain. Salsa doesn’t come from here…” He points to his temple. “It comes from here-” (he puts his hand on her chest) “-from the heart.”
Sandra, whose expression has gone from cold to colder during the lecture, replies calmly, “If you don’t take your hand off my tit, I’ll break your wrist.”
You think that’s the end of it, but the last scene of the episode finds Sandra dancing salsa at that same class, but with a new partner now: Esther, the wife of one of her retired detectives with whom Sandra has struck a friendship over the years. Sandra is leading, and the dance is absolutely gorgeous. Esther comments: “You really do make a fabulous man.” Sandra smiles and replies, “Years of practice.”
I’ve talked before about how manhood is a construct no human can actually achieve. But good leadership is something women can achieve as easily as men, when we receive the same training and conditioning. Sandra Pullman is an excellent leader, and that’s what Esther is responding to. I’ve also talked before about how most TV writers seem to view “leader” and “woman” as mutually exclusive, and in that article, I said:
I’d love to see a show where a woman is #1 in a traditionally male-dominated field, and she struggles to be a good leader while enduring criticism for not being nice enough, or supportive or cooperative enough – in other words, not being a good little woman. Instead, over and over, we see the female leaders deconstructed into mere females again, thus restoring the balance of the status quo.
Instead, I’ve gotten something even better: a woman who doesn’t particularly struggle with being a good leader because it comes naturally to her, and when she’s criticized for not assuming the female role of “supportive helpmate”, her only response is to demonstrate her abilities even more.
*Because it is hilarious, I just have to point out that “UCOS”, pronounced “you-koss”, stands for Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad. Not until Series Five does someone point out it really should be “UCOCS”, pronounced “you cocks.” Those of you who love Vicar of Dibley will be amused to note the character who points it out is played by Roger Lloyd-Pack (Owen Newitt).