The game is afoot.
That’s what a mystery is, for its fans. It’s a team game and the detective is on your team. The opponents are the wrong-doers we are tasked to track down. A good mystery is like any good game, it should be close, challenging, and ultimately won. British literature has provided an enormous back-catalog for those 21st centurions like us who like to pick out the best there ever was.
While the amount of one-hour comedies and sketch shows of which I am aware are relatively few in number, my experience with British mystery is more extensive. There is no coincidence here. I used to watch a couple of these on Mystery! on PBS (which has since been subsumed by Masterpiece Theater to become Masterpiece Mystery (probably on Thursdays, just as before, but some damn fool decided that the audience must witness the metamorphoses of internal organizational charts)).
The real connection, if you wish to solve the mystery of the Professor’s interest in mysteries, is the public library. In many ways, the public library is the archive of the PBS broadcast history. There you will find the British Comedies played out Friday-to-Sunday and the dramas of Masterpiece and Mystery! That, at least, is the beginning. With the advent of the internet, Wikipedia, and then Netflix, it has become easier than ever to find programming that fits your tastes. My tastes have always been Anglican.
This is all prologue to my announcement that the Tiers have returned. There may be too few to dedicate five tiers to the project, so I’ll try to manage it in four. Mild, medium, tasty, and hot. There are some that I might call Thai or Indian spicy, but that would defeat the system. And systems, like pretty girls, are meant to be followed. That’s pretty weird, but fitting for the subject.
I have excluded miniseries and, of course, films as subjects for the guide. The medium, I believe, is different and requires segregation. Issues of budget, scope, and kind are apparent. A British television mystery series is typically adapted from a popular series of mystery novels that number in the dozens. Thus, cast and crew can be expected for regular appearance and cult following. A miniseries, on the other hand, ends once the central tale is told by definition. A film may find itself sequeled, but the budget, cast, and priority of story over mystery (if you see what I mean) also make them too distinguishable for like guidance.
As with Sit Coms, you must disabuse yourself of the idea that Americans and the British are even roughly similar. Cousins separated by a common language, as they say. The British most often rely on literature or less highfalutin books as the basis for their television mysteries/police procedurals. In this country, we seem satisfied with caricature-based “dramas” like CSI (2000-), Law & Order (1980-), and their progeny that take avowed intelligence for actual intelligence. There are some examples of exemplary crime television, like The Wire (2002-08) and Dexter (2006-), for which we should be deservedly proud, but these shows are less mystery that crime and cop–here I distinguish between Cop Show and Police Procedural for no reason whatsoever.
In any case, British Mystery is, as always, character-first (at its best) or puzzler-first (at its worst)–and some even great enough to combine the two (with equal firsts). They are well-produced and casted with incredibly strong actors. This is because these programs are respected and respectable, second only to the miniseries for television snob-worthiness.
If libraries are anything to go by, or PBS at a pinch, a British TV drama–and I mean non-crime, straight-drama like The West Wing (1999-2006)–is going to be a really good soap opera. Perhaps this is to be expected since their comedies veer so much into the dramatic that there isn’t enough room for quality non-comedies. I remind you, if you were thinking of disputing the point, that Pride and Prejudice (1995) is a miniseries based upon a work of literature. Unfair to limit dramas from literature but allow it for mystery? I don’t think so. Colin Dexter isn’t Jane Austin, who comes with a cache of nostalgia, familiarity, and time-testing.
This is all to say that these shows are taken seriously in their creation and consumption.
The typical mystery has a genius and a sidekick. The genius does the thinking and the sidekick does the legwork like bringing out the background information and foreshadowing with little drops of seemingly unrelated data. Look out for corporations, absent friends or family, and hidden bank accounts. The genius is there for inspiration. For all but Sherlock Holmes, most of the episode/story will be dedicated to the genius getting it quite wrong or solving a subsidiary riddle and then wrapping up the larger puzzle in the last couple minutes. There will probably be a race against time to save another victim and our heroes will arrive just in time. But sometimes the sidekick will avail the genius of some free association leading to the final clue. “Say that again.”
In modern mysteries, the culprits are unlikely to see a courtroom. Perhaps that’s because the vast majority of evidence these heroes have uncovered is inadmissible in court. This isn’t always true of the Police Procedural, which is defined by the substituted goal of finding admissible evidence rather than solving the mystery (which they obligingly do through police intuition). However, the killing or suicide of the culprit is unsatisfactory most of the time, and modern mysteries love to live in that kind of world. In this world, finding the truth is our primary concern.
Within the genre, I separate particular programs into two categories: light and dark. A light mystery will be literally, visually brighter and investigations will operate during the day. Heroes are in no real danger. Worst of all, murder is just a part of events, rising only to the level of “Oh no!” on the emotional scale. A dark mystery will be grittier, the murders more gruesome, and the puzzles more personal. There are likely to be multiple bodies. Best of all, the murders are felt by the hero (or the sidekick) and the stakes are understood to be high. Ultimately, in a light mystery the bodies are there for the detectives, while in a dark mystery the detectives are there for the bodies.
For me, this distinction usually parallels my opinion of their quality. These topics are bleak and should be treated with respect. When this is not the case, the tone, to me, is weird and uncomfortable. The bum-bum-bum of the cheery music sounds wrong and the relaxed performances look bad. You won’t see a light mystery in the top two tiers of my guide.
When a dark mystery is in the lower half, that will most likely be because they’ve turned the dial the other way so hard that they commit essentially the same error. They suffer from the “I want your gun and your badge!” kind of histrionics that just cannot be tolerated. That said, I’ve only seen two of those. That said, I have avoided some shows that strike me as probably in that world, like Touch of Frost (1992-2010) or The Bill (1984-)–the latter being an obvious Cop Show, and therefore avoidable, but the former being pure avoidance.
So, when you start watching your mystery, look for a solid (probably broken) character, a good sidekick, some emotional depth, and solid production value.
Next up: The top tier in British Mystery.