Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Brokenwood Mysteries

Neill Rea as Mike Shepard.
Premise:  With a senior sergeant on the verge of retirement, Detective Inspector Mike Shepard (Neill Rea) arrives in the small New Zealand town of Brokenwood to investigate an apparent suicide. Shepard is a quirky individual that listens to country music (on audio cassettes!), drives a 1971 white Holden Kingswood, and sometimes talks with dead bodies (a colleague dubs him "the corpse whisperer"). He also confesses to having "three or four ex-wives." His eccentricities aside, the savvy veteran detective excels at recognizing the importance of minor details that could prove to be invaluable clues. At the end of the first episode, Shepard requests a demotion to Detective Senior Sergeant so that he can remain in Brokenwood. His less-experienced colleagues include Detective Kristin Sims (Fern Sutherland), Detective Constable Sam Breen (Nic Sampson), and Russian medical examiner Dr. Gina Kadinsky (Cristina Ionda). Shepard's neighbor, Jared Morehu (Pana Hema Taylor), provides invaluable information about the town and its residents. Jared is elusive about what he does for a living ("a little bit of this, a little bit of that"), though he works part-time by tending Shepard's vineyard.

Running Time: 90-99 minutes.

Status:  Three seasons of four episodes each have been broadcast since 2014. The first two seasons can be streamed on Acorn TV now and the third season will begin on December 5, 2016. The first two seasons are also available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes: In a 2014 interview in The New Zealand Herald, star Neill Rea described The Brokenwood Mysteries: "It's not a show about a detective who is a twisted genius with dark secrets. He's not Cracker, he's not an alcoholic, he's not Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. Mike's got a few secrets, a few ex-wives, but he's not a really dark character." By the way, Mike Shepard's car, the Holden Kingswood, was manufactured in Australia from 1968 to 1984. It was a family car priced between the entry-level Holden Belmont and the luxury Holden Premier. It's used mostly for comic relief in The Brokenwood Mysteries.

Our Review: The Brokenwood Mysteries has been compared to Midsomer Murders and there are some similarities: the brightly-lit scenes, the dark humor, and the high number of homicides per capita. Certainly, some episodes--like "Sour Grapes" in which victims are drowned in wine vats--are very reminiscent of the beloved British series. However, Brokenwood has a different vibe with its coastal town setting, headstrong residents, and, of course, New Zealand accents. It's a mystery series that is understandably still finding its voice after a handful of episodes. Its greatest asset is Neill Rea as the likable, easygoing sleuth. It would be easy to make Shepard quirky for the sake of quirkiness, but Rea never forces his hand and keeps one watching to find out what his detective will do next.

Grade: B+.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Lord Peter Wimsey: A Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery

Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter.
Premise:  In the 1920s, Lord Peter Wimsey (Edward Petherbridge) and his loyal valet Bunter (Richard Morant) dabble as amateur sleuths. Wimsey's aristocratic mannerisms mask a keen intellect and a soldier's taste for adventure. During World War I, he served as an Army major and Bunter was his sergeant. In Strong Poison, he meets writer Harriet Vane (Harriet Walter) and immediately becomes smitten with her. The only problem: She has been arrested for the murder of a former lover. In subsequent episodes, Peter pursues the free-spirited, intelligent Harriet romantically as they become involved in other murder cases.

Running Time: 52 minutes.

Status:  Lord Peter Wimsey: A Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery only lasted for one season of ten episodes. There are three cases, with two of them spanning three episodes and one lasting for four. The series is available on DVD in the U.S. until the title of Dorothy L. Sayers Mysteries: Harriet Vane Collection.

Production Notes:  This is the second British television series about Dorothy L. Sayers' beloved sleuth. The first appeared in the 1970s and starred Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter and Glyn Houston as Bunter. Although immensely popular, the series received minor criticism from Sayers' hardcore fans who complained that Carmichael, then in his 50s, was too old to play the thirtyish Lord Peter. At 51, Edward Petherbridge wasn't much younger than Carmichael when he first appeared as Wimsey in the 1987 TV series--however, he looked younger. Petherbridge, who is best known for his stage work, also appeared as Lord Peter in the 1988 play Busman's Honeymoon, which co-starred his real-life wife, Emily Richard, as Harriet Vane.

Our Review:  The Ian Carmichael Wimsey mysteries were our introduction to British TV detectives. Thus, we approached this 1987 version with much trepidation. To our surprise, we enjoyed it immensely. Although a different Lord Peter, Petherbridge is delightful and shares great rapport with Harriet Walter as his love interest. Our only quibbles are minor: the emphasis on Peter and Harriet means less Bunter (who was a great sidekick in the earlier series) and, at times, Peter comes across a bit of a lovesick puppy in his quest to earn Harriet's love. As for the rest of the show, the mysteries are first-rate and the production is handsome.

Grade: A-.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Chasing Shadows

Alex Kingston and Reece Shearsmith.
Premise:  Sean Stone (Reece Shearsmith) is a brilliant detective capable of recognizing complex patterns--such as how two seemingly unrelated crimes are connected. However, he also suffers from a social disorder that makes it difficult to interact with  people. When he embarrasses the homicide division during a news conference, the detective sergeant is exiled to a missing persons bureau where he is paired with Ruth Hattersley (Alex Kingston), a "civilian analyst." Like everyone else, Ruth has a hard time coping with Sean's unusual behavior (e.g., when they have an appointment to interview a witness, Sean will take off on his own, leaving Ruth stranded to find her own transportation). Still, Ruth recognizes Sean's keen intellect and even his occasional attempts at "normal" social conventions. On the home front, Ruth lives with her teenage son (who is fascinated by serial killers and wants to meet Sean) and her mother. Sean's closest "friend" is his housekeeper Adele, who cleans, shops, and cooks for him.

Running Time: Each case consists of two 45-minute episodes.

Status:  Only one season (four episodes) was broadcast in 2014; it's available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes:  The four Chasing Shadows episodes were written by Rob Williams, who also penned scripts for DCI Banks and Amazon TV series The Man in the High Castle (which he also produced). Alex Kingston is probably best known to U.S. audiences as Dr. Elizabeth Corday in the long-running medical series ER.

Our Review:  Buoyed by a flawlessly executed premise, Chasing Shadows deserved a second season--and more. Its premature demise deprived viewers of learning more about Sean's housekeeper (who was involved a season-ending cliffhanger) as well as a potential friendship between Sean and Ruth's son Bryan. The two leads, Reece Shearsmith and Alex Kingston, make an irresistible odd couple and Rob Williams' well-paced mysteries grab--and hold--one's attention.

Grade: A.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Silent Witness

Amanda Burton as Dr. Ryan.
Premise:  Dr. Samantha Ryan (Amanda Burton) has recently relocated to Cambridge to work as a pathologist for the police and as a part-time lecturer at the university. Except for her long-time friend Trevor (also a pathologist), she has trouble connecting with her new colleagues. Initially, her lack of experience causes challenges, too, as she berates a witness during an interview and communicates with suspects during ongoing investigations. However, her medical knowledge and keen instincts eventually make her an invaluable member of the investigative team. As for her personal life, Sam has a strained relationship with her sister Wyn, who works at a convenient store while caring for their mother and her teenage son Ricky. After the third season, Sam moves London to teach forensic pathology at London University. Sam departs the series during the eighth season and the focus shifts to Dr. Nikki Alexender (Emilia Fox).

Running Time: 90 minutes (seasons 1-5) and 120 minutes (season 6 - present). The 120-minute cases are broadcast in two parts.

Status:  1996 - present; seasons 1-3 and 17 are available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes:  Creator Nigel McCrery, a former police officer, based his lead character on real-life forensic pathology Dr. Helen Whitwell. He wrote six Silent Witness novels that were published between 1996 and 2003. He co-created the later (and better) detective series New Tricks.

Our Review:  We only watched season 1 episodes with Amanda Burton, so it's possible that Silent Witness improved during its lengthy run. But based on our small viewing sample, we were distinctly unimpressed. Burton's pathologist exhibits little personality and makes too many boneheaded decisions for something who is supposed to be intelligent. We have no problem with close-ups of occasional bloody organs during autopsies, but Silent Witness seems to relish piling on the gore. The first episode is not a mystery at all, as the culprit's identity is revealed midway through the plot. Even in episodes where there is a bonafide mystery, it's way too easy to guess the murderer. Finally, Silent Witness needs some humor to balance out the grim, gray atmosphere.

Grade: C- (Amanda Burton episodes only).

Monday, October 10, 2016

Shetland

Douglas Henshall as DI Perez.
Premise:  The chilly, sweeping landscapes of the Shetland Island, located in northern Scotland, provide the setting for these well-crafted mysteries. The islands' senior police officer is Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall), an introspective widower with a loving teenage stepdaughter. Jimmy's small department consists of the quirky Detective Sergeant Alison "Tosh" MacIntosh, rookie Detective Constable Sandy Wilson, and veteran police sergeant Billy McCabe. Without a pathologist, Jimmy relies on local general practitioner Cora McLean (who is rarely wrong in predicting the time of death). The police station is based in Lerwick, which boasts a population of 7,500. Jimmy frequently has to travel throughout the islands to investigate murders.

Running Time: 50 minutes. In seasons 1 and 2, each mystery spanned two episodes.

Status:  To date, three seasons have been broadcast between 2013 and 2016. The first two seasons are available on DVD in the U.S. The third season will be released in the U.S. in January 2017.

Production Notes:  British author Ann Cleeves has written eight Shetland Island novels since 2006. The first one, Raven Black, won the Gold Dagger award given by the Crime Writers' Association. Reference the TV series, Cleeves said on her web site: "The TV adaptations are very often very different from the books--the scriptwriters cut some characters and add others, cut big chunks of plot and sometimes they even change the murderer! But I'm very relaxed about that. Prose and film are different forms." Cleeves also wrote the Vera Stanhope novels, which were adapted for television as the series Vera, starring Brenda Blethyn.

Our Review:  Believable, well-cast characters and strong writing would be enough to warrant an enthusiastic recommendation for Shetland. However, it's the setting that separates this mystery series from many of its rivals. The jagged cliffs, sheep-scattered hills, exquisite stone buildings, and dilapidated crofts offer a glimpse into a different world. However, it's not just the locale. Shetland integrates the culture of northern Scotland, from festivals like Up Helly Aa to tiny islands with only one church. The series' highlight may be the season 2 episode "Raven Black," in which a teenage girl's murder could be related to a case of a missing child that occurred 19 years earlier.

Grade: A.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Doctor Blake Mysteries

Craig McLachlan as Dr. Blake
Premise:  Set in the 1950s, this Australian series focuses on Lucien Blake, a middle-aged physician who has returned to his hometown of Ballarat to take over his deceased father's medical practice. The senior Blake was also the local police surgeon and Lucien inherits those duties as well. Blake's innate curiosity and propensity to mentally recreate crimes makes him a valuable--if sometimes unwanted--ally to Chief Superintendent Matthew Lawson. Of course, Lawson is one of Blake's few friends given that Lucien can sometimes be self-righteous, indignant, and prone to drinking too much. Other characters include: Blake's live-in housekeeper Jean, who may harbor romantic feelings for Lucien; her nephew Charlie, a young police officer; and nurse Mattie O'Brien. Blake is haunted by his past, especially the fate of his wife and daughter who went missing in Singapore during World War II.

Running Time: 60 minutes.

Status:  To date, four seasons have been broadcast between 2013 and 2016. The first two seasons are available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes:  Star Craig McLachlan was nominated for a Logie Award for three consecutive years, 2014 - 2016. The Logie is the Australian version of an Emmy Award (you can read more about it at the official Logie Awards web site.) The Doctor Blake Mysteries is one of the top-rated dramas in Australia and has been renewed for a fifth season.

Our Review:  Predictable mysteries are the only thing keeping The Doctor Blake Mysteries from ranking with the genre's finest dramas. There are a couple of strong episodes during the first season: "Hearts and Flowers" (which takes place during a flower festival...reminding us of Midsomer Murders) and "Bedlam" (which takes place in a mental institution). However, most episodes feature weakly-plotted mysteries with an obvious killer and a paucity of viable suspects. Craig McLachlan makes a convincing lead and he receives strong support from the rest of the cast. The time period and the location set it apart from contemporary detective series--especially for American audiences who watch little Aussie television.

Grade: B.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Case Histories

Premise:  Police detective-turned-private investigator Jackson Brodie (Jason Isaacs) has a lot on his plate. Clients certainly aren't lining up at his door. His ex-wife is concerned about his parenting skills in regard to their 10-year-old daughter (and rightly so). He and a former colleague, Detective Inspector Louise Munroe, share a mutual attraction (although their timing stinks). And, perhaps most significantly, Jackson is haunted by childhood memories involving his murdered sister. Jackson's cases sometimes dip into the past, such as the search for a woman who disappeared from her family's garden 30 years earlier at the age of three.

Running Time: Season 1 consisted of three mysteries, each broadcast in two one-hour installments. Season 2 consisted of three 90-minute episodes.

Status:  Two seasons were broadcast between 2011 and 2013. They're available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes:  Author Kate Atkinson introduced Jackson Brodie in her 2004 critically-acclaimed novel Case Histories. She has written a total of four Brodie mysteries, three of which were adapted for the TV series. Her books took place in Cambridge, but the series transferred the action to Edinburgh.

Our Review: Case Histories is an enjoyable mystery series anchored by Jason Isaacs, who makes the melancholy Brodie a champion of lost causes. He gets strong support from Millie Innes as Brodie's daughter Marlee and Amanda Abbington as DI Munroe. The frequent flashbacks involving Brodie's murdered sister become annoying, but this is still a well-done, quirky show that deserved additional seasons.

Grade: B+.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Grantchester

James Norton as Sidney Chambers.
Premise:  A former World War II soldier, Sidney Chambers (James Norton) is a young vicar in the small town of Grantchester in Cambridgeshire in the early 1950s. In the first episode, he learns that a supposed suicide may have been a murder. He eventually convinces Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green) to investigate and they team up to unmask the killer. The jazz-loving vicar and the cynical detective subsequently become friends and work together on other mysteries. Meanwhile, Sidney pines for a young woman named Amanda, whom he loves even though she has agreed to an arranged marriage per her father's wishes. Mrs. Maguire, Sidney's stern housekeeper, looks after him. They are joined by Leonard Finch, a timid curate who would rather read about theology than mingle with the parishioners. The fourth "family" member--much to Mrs. Maguire's dismay--is Dickens, a black Labrador puppy that Amanda gave Sidney.

Running Time: 50 minutes.

Status:  Two seasons were broadcast between 2014 and 2016. They're available on DVD in the U.S. ITV has commissioned a third season.

Production Notes:  Grantchester is a based on a series of books by James Runcie, whose father was a former Archbishop of Canterbury. Runcie has published six Grantchester novels since 2012. The first one, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death contained six stand-alone mysteries. Four of them were adapted for first season episodes of the TV series. Grantchester stars James Norton and Robson Green both had prior experience in British detective shows. The latter starred in Touching Evil, while Norton appeared in Happy Valley and Death Comes to Pemberley (an unofficial sequel to Pride and Prejudice in the form of a mystery).

Our Review: Grantchester is a pleasant--if derivative--series that borrows elements from Father Brown and Endeavor. Its biggest liabilities are the mysteries which often seems like minor subplots that detract from the rest of the happenings (e.g., Sidney's love life, Geordie struggling to cope with his young son's serious illness). In fact, my enjoyment of Grantchester grew after I accepted it as a Call the Midwife-style drama instead of a British detective show. The cast is uniformly fine, with James Norton keeping Sidney from become a lovesick bore. Grantchester also benefits from a rich music score and exquisite country landscapes.

Grade: B.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

New Tricks

Dennis Waterman, Alun Armstrong,
James Bolam, and Amanda Redman.
Premise:  When a botched assignment temporarily derails her fast-track career, Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman is tasked with standing up the Unsolved Crime and Open Case (UCOS) Squad for the Metropolitan Police. In addition to Pullman, this new unit will consist of three retired detectives--civilians without the authority to arrest criminals. At least, Sandra (Amanda Redman) gets to pick her team and her first choice is a former boss, retired Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Halford (James Bolam). With Halford's assistance, Sandra completes the UCOS team with retired Detective Inspector Brian Lane (Alun Armstrong) and Detective Sergeant Gerry Standing (Dennis Waterman). All three men come with considerable baggage: Jack still talks nightly with his dead wife, the apparent victim of a hit-and-run accident; the oft-married Gerry battles unfounded, past allegations of corruption; and Brian is an obsessive-compulsive, recovering alcoholic with a long-suffering wife. However, the four detectives come together to forge a potent investigative team and a supportive "family." Beginning with Jack's departure in season 9, the original team is gradually replaced by an entirely new one over seasons 10-12.

Running Time: 60 minutes (the pilot is 97 minutes).

Status:  12 seasons were broadcast between 2003 and 2015. They're available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes:  Screenwriter Roy Mitchell created New Tricks, which--unlike many British TV detective shows--was not based on a book series. All four of the original actors experienced prior success on British television. Among his many shows, Alun Armstrong starred opposite David Jason (A Touch of Frost) in A Sharp Intake of Breath. Amanda Redman earned a 2001 Best Actress nomination from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for At Home With the Braithwaites. James Bolam may be best remembered for his 1960s sitcom The Likely Lads. And Dennis Waterman teamed with John Thaw (Inspector Morse) for the 1970s police drama The Sweeney. Of course, New Tricks was also something of a family affair. Brian Lane's wife Esther was played by James Bolam's real-life spouse Susan Jameson. Brian and Esther's dog Scampi was, in fact, Alun Armstrong's dog. And Dennis Waterman's real-life daughter Hannah played his "daughter" for two seasons on the show. By the way, the theme song is sung by Waterman--who we almost get to hear sing in one of the episodes.

Our Review:  New Tricks is a delightful comedy-drama with brilliantly-conceived characters played by a talented group of actors. I'm sure every fan has his or her favorite, but ours was Brian, whose memory for details (his rarely-used nickname is Memory Lane) plays a critical part in solving many of the cases. We were consistently impressed with Alun Armstrong's ability to convey the character's strengths (he's the most intelligent member of UCOS) and liabilities (the alcoholism, his inability to let go of an idea, his childish behavior). While New Tricks is never less than enjoyable, its first seven years are the best and feature well-developed mysteries balanced with insights into the characters' private lives. One of the show's few flaws is its occasional tendency to drop a ongoing storyline without explanation. For example, the first few seasons feature Gerry's ex-wives, particularly Jayne, but they disappear by the fourth season. Still, that's a minor quibble for a show that gets an enthusiastic endorsement.

Grade:  A (A+ for seasons 1-7).

Monday, August 1, 2016

Inspector George Gently

DS Bacchus and Inspector Gently.
Premise: Set in the mid-1960s, the pilot episode introduces Inspector George Gently of London's Metropolitan Police, who is devastated when his wife is killed in a hit-and-run accident. He suspects her death was foul play, a result of his investigation of a gangster deeply involved with police corruption. The middle-aged detective ponders retirement, but instead transfers to Northumberland to track down the man responsible for his wife's murder. In his new job, George is paired with a detective sergeant named John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby). While Gently is a tough, by-the-book veteran cop with strong ethics, Bacchus bends the rules, displays questionable judgment, and sometimes lacks morals. And yet, Gently sees the potential for a good detective and thus the unlikely pair form a tenuous bond. WPC Rachel Coles becomes part of the investigation team in season six.

Running Time:  90 minutes.

Status:  Seven seasons were broadcast between 2007 and 2015. They're available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes: Alan Hunter wrote 46 George Gently novels, starting with Gently Does It in 1955. However, in the books, there is no John Bacchus, Gently is single, and he lives in Norfolk. Prior to the Gently series, Martin Shaw portrayed P.D. James' detective Adam Dalgliesh in two two-part movies in 2003 and 2005. He also portrayed an anti-establishment high court justice in Judge John Deed (2001-2007). Lee Ingleby enhanced his own detective pedigree as an inspector in the 2008 mini-series Place of Execution.

Our Review:  Inspector George Gently is an exceptional detective series built around the complex relationship between Gently and Bacchus. At various times, they come across as mentor and protege, supportive colleagues, and even opponents (their heated disagreements comprise some of the strongest scenes). Martin Shaw and Lee Ingleby deep dig into their characters to the point that we cringe, for example, when Bacchus makes a boneheaded decision like getting involved with the wife of a fellow detective. The mysteries are well-written and take advantage of the period setting without drawing obvious attention to it. Although Inspector George Gently enjoyed modest success on the BBC, we're flummoxed as to why it didn't become a bigger hit.

Grade:  A+.