Eight years after Sandra shot one dog and was punished by being put in charge of a bunch of fossils, there's still no sign of the format running out of steam. As with series 7, the emphasis is again on the characters solving crimes in their own unique styles with few scenes detailing their lives outside of work, although when we do get to see their lives, they are always entertaining.
None of Gerry's extensive family appears this year, and his only memorable personal scene involves a nice comic routine involving a French cook. Brian gets the usual amusing asides with Esther, the best of which features Esther and on-line auction sites. Sandra meets another old flame and her mother returns for more memorable rounds of verbal jousting. But the character with the most interesting personal development is Jack. He hasn't been given much to do outside of work since resolving the arc tale about his wife's murder, but in the same way that series 5 detailed Brian's slow return to alcoholism, this year has a well-judged arc involving Jack's melancholy. In fact, as with Brian's earlier arc, for the most part his personal problems are unintrusive other than a sense that he's becoming increasingly maverick. There's only a small element each episode featuring Jack being distant from the others or him delivering an unexpected line of dialogue, but all these moments build up to a pay-off that's worth waiting for and which explains Jack's motivation this year. Of course, long-time fans will know that the show has a poor track record of using the final scenes from a series in the next series and so, despite the pay-off, it's likely it'll never get referred to again.
As for the stories, they are consistently strong. The only weak episode for me involves what is supposed to be the roughest, toughest, nastiest gang of scruffy bikers in the country, except the actors are a bunch of softies and they come across as being slightly less menacing than the bikers in Every Which Way but Loose. The strong episodes feature such varied subjects as fossils, homelessness, a zoo, and antiques with the highlight being an entertaining romp about a missing scientist. This episode features an amusing turn from Tim McInnery and closes with the strange addition of a nod to the Matrix, although as Jack once claimed to be a fan of Trinity, I'm not sure why he didn't spot the similarities.
Throughout, the stories feature light humour alongside some very dark subject matters, often in the same scene. A classic moment that shows why this series works involves a psychologist giving the cops a word association test. Each character's reaction is perfectly judged, combining humour, angst and sadness, all in less than a minute. Another sign of the continued strength of the series is the quality of the actors who guest star. Every episode features numerous familiar faces so that the traditional murder mystery rule that the most famous actor did it rarely applies. And it's nice to see that the usual benign nepotism continues with guest roles for Amanda Redman's daughter and Anthony Calf's wife.
Best of all, the show has already been commissioned for another two years. I'd like to think that this welcome news is played out on screen during a fourth-wall breaking sub-plot when it looks as if UCOS might be closed down due to budgetary restrictions. But the powers that be give them permission to go on solving crimes for as long as they want to although, as Jack says, that's only because they're all dirt cheap. And long may the actors carry on accepting low wages for our benefit!