You're familiar with lateral thinking puzzles, yes? They're the branch of brain busters to which most locked room mysteries belong. Surely you know of locked room mysteries - a man is found hanged in an otherwise empty room, locked from the inside, with only a puddle of water on the floor, so how did he climb up to hang himself? Lateral thinking puzzles offer a similar, if broader, flavor of head-scratcher; the point here is to fill out more of the picture by asking yes/no questions of the person who knows the answer, or by thinking up new, unusual angles to the story. A famous example: A man is found dead in a Chicago park. It's a hot summer day, yet the man clearly died from hypothermia. What happened?
If these sort of conundrums are your bag, then welcome to the wonderful world of "Jonathan Creek," the BBC mystery series which ran intermittently for twenty-five episodes from 1997 through 2004. Penned by David Fenwick, "Creek" matches Alan Davies with Caroline Quentin for a comic drama in which quirky anorak Jonathan Creek (Davies) teams with bossy motormouth Maddy Magellan (Quentin) to pop the lid off a set of "impossible" crimes. The hook: Jonathan works for a famous American magician (Stuart Milligan, although Anthony Stewart Head played the role in the pilot episode), devising all sorts of new tricks. Jonathan's love for classic stage trickery and his expertise in the business of sleight of hand gives him the upper hand in deconstructing these whodunits. At his side is investigative journalist Maddy, who made a minor name for herself exposing police ineptitude (something the cops don't appreciate) and who now hopes to sell a book detailing her baffling adventures with Jonathan.
At the end of the first season (or series, if you insist on using the British terminology), Renwick had built up a solid supply of sexual tension between the two leads - a daring move, not because the will-they-won't-they bit has been overplayed for decades elsewhere, but because Jonathan and Maddy are such striking opposites that their mutual desire goes beyond "opposites attract" and into the realm of "those two? really??" But Jonathan's intelligence and Maddy's brassy self-assurance are both rather sexy in their own ways, and once you get into the series, the attraction is instantly understandable.
Alas, the first season ended more on the won't-they side of things, despite coming so very, very close. For season two (which originally aired in January and February 1998), Renwick makes the whole enterprise about the sexual frustration between the two, allowing it to hit absurd heights, considering both characters are aware of their mutual attraction, yet both insist on refusing to act upon it. As such, the entire second season plays out with the leads snipping at each other throughout. Renwick pulls away from any teasing, ensuring us that things will remain quite won't-they for a while now, as long as the author can maintain the deliciously bitter tension between the two. Both characters will find potential romance elsewhere, although this will be all too fleeting, as such new loves come in the form of Renwick's bizarre side characters - people with quirky surprises bound to put off our heroes. The performances are once again splendid, and watching comic masters Davies and Quentin verbally spar is one of the series' best treats.
Renwick also provides a greater depth for Maddy, as we learn about tragedy in her past. Unfortunately for character development, this revelation isn't used beyond the episode in which it arrives, suggesting such a character note was used only as a storytelling gimmick and not to help create a more compelling whole. (Perhaps later seasons, as yet unseen by me, corrected this. I hope so, as the character and the series are worth more.)
Ah, but nobody comes to "Jonathan Creek" just for the character work. (The banter is the icing, not the cake.) It's all about the mystery, and while the second season whodunits aren't quite as involving or as inventive as their predecessors, there's still plenty of puzzling wonder to behold. Here, Renwick moves beyond locked room murder and into full-out lateral thinking bafflers. Solutions may seem a bit too contrived, especially to those who continue to gripe about, say, the finale of "Murder on the Orient Express," with its explanation that defied storytelling logic. And yet contrived is what "Jonathan Creek" is all about, with deliriously convoluted answers that, to paraphrase Jonathan, will seem all too simple once they're revealed.
The best of the bunch is "Time Waits For Norman," which, aside from having a terrific pun for a title (note: "terrific pun" is usually an oxymoron), contains the season's most elegant puzzler. A man was seen in a London restaurant; mere hours earlier, and again hours later, he was also seen in a New York office. All clues point to him genuinely being at both places, yet simple physics insist he could not have flown between continents to make these observations possible. Added tics like the man's fear of clocks only add to this sly time-based riddle.
For the two-part "The Problem at Gallows Gate," a woman was seen being killed by a man who himself died weeks earlier. "Danse Macabre" presents a variation on the locked room theme, with a killer escaping a closed garage, vanishing into thin air. Another variation pops up for "The Scented Room," which finds a valuable painting disappearing from a sealed room. (The painting, by the way, is owned by a renowned yet despised critic, and Jonathan goes out of his way to remind us, correctly, that critics are never to be liked.)
"Mother Redcap" is a delightfully complex episode, as it weaves two seemingly separate mysteries into one thread. Jonathan is called upon by the police to examine the murder of a prominent judge; meanwhile, Maddy is asked to help investigate a set of historical deaths which occurred at a local pub in the 1940s. To make things interesting, a vagrant is found dead at the pub, while a fragment of the vagrant's fingernail is found at the scene of the judge's murder. Clues and red herrings alike abound in this tightly wound adventure, making it a puzzle fanatic's delight.
BBC Video collects all six 50-minute episodes for the two-disc "Jonathan Creek: Season Two" set. The discs come in a single-wise keepcase with a hinged tray holding the second disc. The episodes, presented in order of original broadcast, are:
Disc One: "Danse Macabre," "Time Waits For Norman," and "The Scented Room."
Disc Two: "The Problem at Gallows Gate" parts one and two, and "Mother Redcap."
Video and Audio
There's a bit of broadcast softness and slight graininess to the image, and there's no hiding that this is a ten-year-old British television production, but the series looks otherwise pretty good. The DVD cover incorrectly labels the product as being 16:9 enhanced. The video is actually a non-enhanced letterbox, looking to be around a 1.66:1 ratio. (One of my monitors, with greater overscan, barely made the bars noticeable at all, while watching on my laptop revealed a great deal of letterboxing. Take that for whatever it might be worth.)
The soundtrack, in Dolby stereo, is crisp and clean, making great use of the talk-heavy series. Optional English subtitles are provided.
Sadly, while the first season set contained a nice making-of feature, no extras are offered this time around. Previews for various BBC titles play as both discs load; you can skip past them if you choose.
While not up to the top level of season one, the second season of "Jonathan Creek" remains a marvelous blend of mystery and fun, with its wild array of devilish puzzles and endearing guest stars. (Look! It's Peter Davison!!) Davies and Quentin make a hell of a screen team, too. The only disappointment with this sophomore effort is the lack of bonus material, but even then, the set is most certainly Recommended.