Tier 4: The Butler Did It!
I preface this with the possibly obvious comment that these are the shows I like least and have, accordingly, seen least. If they improve dramatically after a first series, I accept my ignorance of the fact and invite your comments on the subject.
Foyle’s War (2002-10)
Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) is a a Detective Chief Superintendent, which I think is the highest ranking detective of any series, located in Hastings during World War II. The crimes involved are often war-related, but sometimes not. He is aided by his driver Samantha Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) and DS Paul Milner (Anthony Howell). His style is very low key. He slips quietly around wrapping up the mystery while the evil-doers and red herring-layers have over-heard arguments and engage in suspicious goings-on.
This is one of the few shows that is not based upon a book or book series. It’s pretty easy to tell. Mysteries original to television tend to be more formulaic, players more stock, resolutions more neat. Perhaps this is emblematic of the difference in emotional masochism between a scriptwriter and a novelist–the latter being rather extreme of the tribe. A scriptwriter thinks the worst thing you can do to someone is to kill them, the novelist knows better. Another piece of light fare and not even the best of it. Like Cadfael, this show is about ambiance.
You may be thinking, “Hey, I just saw this in Tier 3!” Well, I had the opportunity to watch an episode last night as well as some episodes of The Vice (1999-2003) and adjusted accordingly. Check out Tier 3 to see what that is.
Inspector George Gently(2007-)
It’s the mid-60’s and Inspector George Gently (Martin Shaw) of the Met is sent down to Durham to investigate a murder he suspects to be the work of his nemesis. There, he finds DS John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby), who is well connected, but actually wants to be good at his work (though he has some bad habits). They go about solving the mystery through interviews and evidence accumulation–you know, detective work. Gently is the mentor, and Bacchus is the gopher
I like Shaw’s voice, but there the attraction ends. This is Midsomer Murders set in the past with a bit more physical violence and slang. Light, slight, and boring. The world they inhabit is darker, to be fair, but I don’t see that reflected in the tone (of the pilot episode). I wasn’t interested enough to keep watching.
The Last Detective (2003-07)
Constantly underestimated and unaccountably disliked DC “Dangerous” Davies (Peter Davison) is on the worst case available. Apparently, he testified against a corrupt policeman and has been hounded ever since. He is aided by somewhat daft Mod (Sean Hughes). Davies is conspicuous by his gentility and sensitive nature. He is basically taken advantage of by everyone, especially his ex-wife. But he’s good at what he does.
This is the nambiest pamby British mystery has to offer (in my experience). It’s a kind of mystery comedy that defines the lighter examples of the genre. If you’ve read the comments on higher tiers, you’ll know that this is no compliment. If it was a straight comedy, then perhaps it would be able to succeed in my eyes, but since it is still a mystery, and very reverent to the job/stakes, it can never get very funny. Plus, as far as I can tell, there is no sense in which Davies is the last detective, so why the title?
Oddly unavailable in Region 2.
Region 1 ($74)
DI Lewis (Kevin Whately) is back in Oxford after some time away. He doesn’t have DCI Morse there to help him, but he does have DS Hathaway (Laurence Fox) who is a bit like Morse in that he’s incredibly knowledgeable and has a bad habit (smoking). Two or three threads will intertwine with each seemingly about the culprit, but only one, in fact, having committed the crime.
As you can tell by that last sentence, this show is all about formula. Though that was arguably true of Inspector Morse, the show had a lot more going for it in character and soundtrack, and never really held firm to its formula. Here, we don’t have the interesting characters or the excellent chemistry of sort-of opposites. While Morse was the superior in rank and knowledge, the mixed superiority makes for near-parody. Also, the underlying mystery is usually more drippy than was its predecessor.
Midsomer Murders (1997-)
DCI Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), and then DCI John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon) (cousin) solves crimes with a series of DSs, Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey) (30), Dan Scott (John Hopkins) (14), and Ben Jones (Jason Hughes) (50). Tom Barnaby is like Foyle, unimpeachable and uninteresting. Lots of murders in rural England–been there, done that.
There seem to be about a million of these whenever I find myself in the local library’s DVD section—that’s from Arlington, VA to Fort Worth, TX to North Greenbush, NY—and I’ve succumb to the temptation but once. And once, as they say, was enough. Light, fluffy, and a little murder. The inspector blunders about until the solution occurs to him (or it’s too obvious to ignore with the catalog of evidence he’s accumulated). It is the worst kind of pedestrian mysterying. No inspiration in character. I shouldn’t really comment on variety as I’ve seen only the first episode, but I can promise that it is as equally featureless.
Perhaps I’m rushing to judgment on a show that appears to have ran longer than almost any other and even survived a main character change. Or the English like garbage just the same as the rest of us. Surprisingly based on novels by Caroline Graham.
Miss Marple (1985-)
Miss Jane Marple (Joan Hickson/Geraldine McEwan/Julia McKenzie) has been investigating mysteries for a very long time. Murder follows her around. She shuffles about, picking up clues and suspects, until the very end when everyone unaccountably and unfailingly comes together to the dining room or some such place and are told what exactly they had gotten up to in the past couple days. Scooby Doo, you have so much to learn.
Based on the books by Agatha Christie, Miss Marple is the serial or serials (in addition to Poirot, of course). Murder has to follow her around because if she ever had a headquarters, it would have to be renovated constantly to account for some variation. 12 novels and 20 short stories is a lot. They are formulaic, without interest as actual drama, and cheesy as stories. I’m sure there are those out there who rate their Hickson/McEwan/McKenzie preferences with vigor, but I’ve only seen the McEwan ones recently. But because of the vastness of the catalog, I can’t be expected to come up with a complete figure as to price.
Murder in Suburbia (2004-05)
If he turns out to be gay, I’m going to shoot myself.
DI Kate Ashurst (Caroline Catz) investigates murders with DS Emma Scribbens (Lisa Faulkner) and drools over DCI Sullivan (Jeremy Sheffield). They banter, they investigate, and they marvel about gender issues in modern day Britain.
I know Caroline Catz from Doc Martin (2004-) and had some hopes for the program. Two women detecting things. Perhaps they had something to contribute to the world of detection akin to Prime Suspect but after the Second Wave in the gender wars. Apparently it’s that some men have cute butts and it’s really hard to get a date when you’re a working woman. So, perhaps not. Are they even good detectives? Not especially.
One cannot hurry the little grey cells, Captain.
Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) is a Belgian detective who finds mystery at every turn. He goes to the theater, someone will be murdered there. He goes to the seaside, someone will drown. He goes to the manor home, someone will have their pearls stolen and then be strangled with them. He is often accompanied by Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser) or aids the investigation of Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson). He has a knack for details and accumulating clues.
With Miss Marple, I expect this one to be the most disputed. Mostly because this is the one you’ve probably seen. It’s been on television for over two decades and is based on works from one of the most popular detective writers (Agatha Christie). Still, I will not budge. If I have to see all the suspects in the room for the final reveal ever again, it will be too soon. I am not a viewer who needs to guess and reguess whodunnit at ever turn. I want to see a show with some interesting characters, good story, and good chemistry. This show, like Miss Marple, is simply one for churning out case after case.
Sorry about the lack of Region 1 price, there are just too many collections out there that are incomplete. Region 2, however, is Series 1-12.
Well, that’s the end of it. There are a number of shows I haven’t seen and even those I have could be moved around. Recommendations?