I hadn't seen any episodes of the British mystery series Midsomer Murders until last October, when I reviewed Midsomer Murders: Barnaby's Top 10, a shrewd collection of representative episodes that its star (until recently), John Nettles, felt particularly proud of. Those mild but entertaining mysteries were almost the antithesis of more broadly appealing programs like Poirot and Cracker, mysteries built around far more eccentric and colorful sleuths. At its best, Midsomer is driven less by its leading and other continuing characters than by the mysteries themselves, its leisurely approach, and an idealized depiction of small-town Britain.
The cover art for Midsomer Murders - Set 19 includes a bizarre quote from the San Francisco Chronicle absurdly calling it, "The British rural version of Law & Order." Maybe this will help sell discs, but I can't imagine a more inapt description. For starters, the "Order" part of Law & Order refers to the fact that about half of each episode of that show is concerned with events after an arrest, the prosecution and trial of the accused, something that's never been part of Midsomer Murders at all. It's also a stretch to call it rural. Based in fictional Midsomer County, inspired mainly by Somerset in South West England, most stories are set in quaint but clustered non-metropolitan towns rather than remote agricultural areas.
The set offer four feature-length episodes on two discs (approximately 100 minutes each according to the box, but in fact just under 90 minutes). What's included are the first four of eight 13th series episodes from 2010, among the last to feature Tom Barnaby (Nettles), his wife Joyce (Jane Wymark), and their daughter, Cully (Laura Howard). Since then, actor Neil Dudgeon has starred as Tom's younger cousin, DCI John Barnaby, a character introduced in one of the episodes here.
Left-to-right: Jason Hughes, John Nettles, Neil Dudgeon.
Midsomer Murders, based on novels of Caroline Graham, debuted nearly 15 years ago, in March 1997, and there have been an even 90 episodes to date. As with the American series Murder, She Wrote, set in the small Maine town of Cabot Cove, Midsomer's murder rate would seem to rival Detroit's, straining credibility. In one episode, "Blood on the Saddle," the murder spree would have been headlines all across Europe, also begging the question as to whether a single Detective Chief Inspector and his sergeant, Ben Jones (Jason Hughes) would, all by themselves, be entrusted with such big cases.
The show's long run clearly has its writers straining to come up with new stories and situations. Two of the four episodes involve settings beyond Midsomer's usual domain. Most of "The Sword of Guillaume" takes place in Brighton, London-by-the-Sea, while "Blood on the Saddle" revolves around a Wild West show and tries to be a quasi-Western as much as a mystery.
As mysteries, the four shows are okay but extremely tame. More than ever, Midsomer seems fashioned for an older demographic, again like Murder, She Wrote. Oddly though, the murders themselves are often quite gruesome. "The Sword of Guillaume," for instance, features a graphically decapitated head.
Overall I found these episodes several notches below the quality of the earlier ones included on that Barnaby's Best DVD set. Even Nigel Bruce's bumbling Dr. Watson could have identified the killer in "The Made-to-Measure Murders," partly due to the casting of an actor who's come to specialize in such parts in recent years.
"Blood on the Saddle," meanwhile, exemplifies the straining for fresh material. The Wild West show setting, anything but authentically American in appearance, is merely an excuse for Barnaby and others to walk about Old West-styled streets, and to dress up (Barnaby as Wyatt Earp, the killer as Billy the Kid), etc. David Harsent's teleplay hints at an even larger Western-Mystery genre fusing by centering the murders around that old Western chestnut, the bitter dispute over land the villains know will soon become valuable, but this concept isn't developed as it might have been and the results come off as frequently silly. Bizarrely, in one scene, out of nowhere, is an oblique reference to the movie Marathon Man.*
Guest stars in these shows include James Wilby, Janet Suzman, David Rintoul, Saskia Reeves, Kenneth Cranham, Tim McInnerny, and Caroline Langrishe.
Video & Audio
Midsomer Murders - Set 19 looks quite nice in high-definition. Colors are rich and the detail is sharp, despite being in 1080i; in short, up to contemporary HD television standards. The 2.0 PCM Stereo is likewise fine and the shows include optional SDH English subtitles.
Included are episode summaries and photo galleries, but that's it.
Midsomer Murders - Set 19 is just okay, with mysteries that are fair at best and highly predictable and clichéd at worst, though star Nettles remains agreeably pleasant throughout, and the scenery is nice. Recommended.
* At the optometrist, a bemused Barnaby is repeatedly asked, "Is it safe?" before the eye doctor finally finishes his thought with, "Is it safe? The streets at night?" If there's a joke in there somewhere, it was lost on me.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.