British Mysteries From Acorn Media
A few different takes on the troubled detective stereotype
Joe Frietze and Gina Wood
Fans of British detective shows have had a long history of watching main characters who are supremely flawed individuals. Often he or she is an alcoholic or some other form of addict with nary a functional relationship in sight. The flaws are another hurdle to overcome on the march to solving the case of the week. While we love shows of this nature (see Rebus and Prime Suspect), sometimes it can get depressing. No matter that the murderer was caught, our hero is still on a self-destructive path. Occasionally you want to watch a detective show that is a little less depressing, and Acorn Media has a varied selection that gives you that option.
The Last Detective – Series 4
The first of these alternative mysteries is The Last Detective. “Dangerous” Davies earned his ironic nickname by being the least dangerous detective in the police service, and the most likely to hurt himself in the line of duty. He is probably the oldest Detective Constable in Britain, and takes so few chances that he will likely never get a promotion. His co-workers love to tease him, and his boss loves to saddle him with the lowest of the low-profile cases. Each episode highlights this with a teaser showing Davies flubbing a simple case (e.g. losing a suspect in a foot chase by getting his trousers caught on an iron fence he tries to climb). Even his wife calls him “Dangerous” in that ironic way. Nevertheless, he continues to solve the unsolvable cases.
Series 4 of The Last Detective has Davies running through the same hoops as the first three installments of the show — the most by the book detective constable in the service wants to follow-up on cases that look either accidental or unsolvable, his boss berates him for wasting time, and then he ends up solving the case. Taken on their own, the stories are serviceable mysteries, but when added to a backstory that implies this has happened over and over again, with no change in the way his co-workers treat him, it begins to strain credulity. If he consistently solves these cases, then shouldn’t he earn a little more respect, if not from his co-workers, then at least from his boss and wife?
What makes the series rise above the premise is the acting. Peter Davison (Doctor Who) shines here as Davies. He takes what could be a forgettable character and brings a humanity to him that makes you see why a truly decent cop would continue slogging through the hassle each and every day. No matter what the case, large or small, nor the treatment by his co-workers, he keeps his pleasant disposition in his dogged search for truth. Sean Hughes plays Mod, his ne’er do well best mate, and brings that comic sidekick to life with all the expected clichés (moneymaking schemes, girl chasing, pretending to be a detective, etc.). Julie Davies is played by Emma Amos with a playful exuberance. The early episodes of this series established previous marital trouble, but that is thankfully played down in this series, instead focusing on their rekindling affection. Supporting characters in the individual mysteries are played by some memorable actors including Roger Daltry of The Who, Kenneth Cranham (Rome) and Camille Coduri (Doctor Who).
The Last Detective is the most lighthearted look at British police procedurals in this batch. If you are tired of the heavy tone of the mainstream cops, give “Dangerous” Davies a visit.
Joe Donovan was a renowned criminologist before a botched case led to his nervous breakdown, early retirement, and more lucrative career as a writer. DNA is the story of how he gets brought back into the world of forensic investigation, and the effect it has on his family. An obvious answer to the popularity of US shows like CSI, the British version focuses more on the characters than the science. While the investigations are interesting, from the personal case that gets Donovan back into the fold to the various other murders they tackle, they use the forensics as a means to an end rather than the focal point of the narrative. Donovan’s relationships with his estranged wife and teenaged son, and the way this job has alienated them, are far more fascinating than yet another case that looks similar to so many we have already seen solved.
As with most of these shows, it’s the cast that sets them apart. To see Tom Conti (Deadline) dig into a character like Joe Donovan — plagued not by addiction but instead by blackouts and fugue states, dealing with his wife’s distance, and still managing to find the truth in these mysteries — is a pure joy. The fact that Samantha Bond (Die Another Day) can not only hold her own but actually outperform him in several scenes, turning the viewer’s allegiance from him to her on a dime, is a true high point. Rounding out the family is Ryan Cartwright (Hardware) as their son Seth, who starts the series directionless after school has ended, but ends up in a promising new position by the final episode. Trying to hold your own in multiple scenes with these two great actors can not have been easy, but Cartwright has several strong scenes, delivering both comedic and dramatic performances with aplomb. He elevates what could have been another clichéd misunderstood youth into a truly memorable character. We are definitely going to keep an eye out for him in the future. Supporting character actors are again staples of the British television scene, but pay special attention to the forensics technician played by Indira Varma (Rome) and the weary doctor played by Peter Capaldi (Fortysomething). They both rise above the average to engage you in the story.
DNA is, as mentioned, a little light on the science to be called a forensics show, and while the mysteries are enjoyable enough, none of them were truly original. Coincidence and predictability hold sway over a majority of the plots, but the character development stands out. We find out more about Donovan in the first episode than in any of the CSI leads in an entire season. Likewise, we care about his co-workers in addition to his family. We see him for his flaws as well as his strengths, as a fully formed character surrounded by others just as well formed. In character development the writers excelled. Perhaps if their stories had been a little stronger, DNA would have lasted more than five episodes. As it stands, Acorn Media has released a fine two-disc set of all five hour-plus episodes, with adequate audio and video transfers. Special features are lacking, but the shows themselves are well worth a rental.
Midsomer Murders — The Early Years and Set Ten
While The Last Detective took a lighthearted look at British police work, and DNA gave us a heavy character-focused drama about the forensic side of the investigation, Midsomer Murders combines traditional murder mysteries with a sense of humor rarely found in dramatic presentation. Quite often, the absurd takes hold, and one murder leads to multiple additional corpses.
Based on the novels by Caroline Graham, Midsomer Murders follows DCI Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), a senior member of CID for Midsomer County in rural England. Barnaby and his deputy are constantly investigating murders in the central town of Causton, and in the multiple small villages throughout the county. The theme of the series is often “what lies beneath” — taking the perfect, idyllic rural setting and pulling back the blinds to show the vice and venom that it truly contains — adultery, extortion, and of course, murder. This is all done with a very deft hand, balancing dark humor with strong character work.
The main difference between The Early Years and Set Ten is the change in Barnaby’s deputy. For the first several seasons, Detective Sergeant Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey) was the co-star. In Set Ten we get to see DS Dan Scott (John Hopkins). Of the two, Troy is the winner, with much more in the way of a unique character throughout his different episodes. The Scott character rarely gets much to do besides ask a few questions and complain about being sent to work in “the sticks.” The rest of the main cast consists of Barnaby’s long-suffering wife Joyce (Jane Wymark) and daughter Cully (Laura Howard). Guest stars abound from British series as well as Hollywood films, especially in The Early Years. While the cast filmographies are helpful in identifying many, others should be obvious, including a very young Orlando Bloom.
One of the high points of Midsomer is its use of continuity. Each mystery is self-contained. You could just as easily watch a random episode from Set Ten before you watch the first episode filmed, and not be lost. However, as the series grew, bits of continuity were applied that are an added bonus to viewers who had been paying attention — bit players from one mystery appear as supporting characters several episodes later; supporting characters may then in turn wind up as victims down the road. Likewise, character development is organic. We get to know Troy because of his political incorrectness and Barnaby’s family because of his wife’s hobbies and his daughter’s jobs as an actress. While none of these bits are essential to any individual story, they add to the tapestry of Midsomer when viewed as a whole.
Set Ten gives the viewer three mysteries from Season Eight, all quite enjoyable. The Early Years, however, is the real bargain from Acorn Media. At nineteen discs, this set presents the first eighteen mysteries together in broadcast order for the first time, along with a disc of new bonus materials. (This set contains material from Sets 1, 2, 3, and 5.) You might want to pace yourself, though. As good as these mysteries are, the sheer absurdity of the mounting body count might get to you if you watch too many of them in a row. The Early Years MSRP is $159.99 while the individual sets are priced at $59.99 each. If you think you might like Midsomer Murders, pick up Set Ten, but if you are already a fan thanks to cable TV, The Early Years is an amazing bargain.
So there you have it. If you are tired of the brooding detective with a plethora of personal problems who nevertheless solves the mystery in the end, Acorn Media has some excellent alternatives for you. While none of them are perfect, each offers something different while still sticking to the mystery genre.
Acorn Media: www.acornonline.com