What's with all the incest and anti-Christian sentiment? Oh, that's right...it's England. ...and the mysteries aren't so mysterious this go-around, either. Acorn has released Midsomer Murders: Set 21, a four-disc collection of the first four episodes of the internationally popular British mystery series' 14th season (or "series" in BritTV-speak), which originally aired in the U.K. from March to May, 2011. Titles include Death in the Slow Lane, Dark Secrets, Echoes of the Dead, and The Oblong Murders. Certainly the most notable aspect of these Midsomer Murders entries is the full-time arrival of Neil Dudgeon as John Nettles' replacement. Even though I'm a huge fan of Nettles, Dudgeon is fine as Causton CID's new Detective Chief Inspector John Barnaby (even if the screenwriters have him do some pretty dumb things), but this a very shaky start to Dudgeon's run, and hopefully not an indication that the long-running series is on its last legs. No extras (not even an interview with Dudgeon?) for these typically pristine widescreen transfers.
Having reviewed thirteen (!) previous sets of Midsomer Murders, I can assure you that if you're not familiar with the series, don't feel that you can't begin watching the show, even this late in the game (please click here, if you wish to read my previous reviews for background). Each mystery is essentially "stand alone," so newcomers are more than welcome―particularly now that a new main character is anchoring the show. Not to spend too much time on recapping the series for the fourteenth time, but to briefly acquaint new readers with the basic set-up, Midsomer Murders details the bizarrely continuous mayhem (which nobody notices or cares to comment on) that afflicts rural, affluent (and wholly fictitious) Midsomer County, England. Bodies drop like flies―and in the most appalling ways―and now it's up to Detective Chief Inspector John Barnaby of the Causton Criminal Investigation Department, taking over for his older cousin Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) who has resigned from the force, to clean up the mess. John Barnaby is aided in his inquiries by Detective Sergeant Ben Jones (Jason Hughes), an inquisitive, competent copper who offers an oftentimes wry, slightly baffled compliment to Barnaby's low-key detective skills (as well as snarky comments about his new boss' degree in psychology). Lending a hand with vital forensic data is jovial coroner Dr. George Bullard (Barry Jackson), while we're offered glimpses of Barnaby's home life with his lovely wife, Sarah Barnaby (Fiona Dolman), the new head at Causton Comprehensive School, and their inquisitive terrier dog, Sykes.
DEATH IN THE SLOW LANE
Slimcase synopsis: "DCI John Barnaby's relationship with his new partner, DS Ben Jones, is off to a rough start after the older detective belittles Jones' enthusiasm for a local classic car show. When one of the show's judges is found dead near a vintage car, the two detectives are forced to cooperate before the killer can strike again."
Naturally, any long-time fan of Midsomer Murders is going to be interested to see how a newcomer can come into a popular series after so many years and take over the top spot―particularly from a performer as well liked by loyal viewers as John Nettles. So, strictly speaking in terms of performance, Neil Dudgeon does quite well here (especially when you consider the pressure he must have felt, filling this iconic role). One of the keys to Nettles' turn was his low-key, bemused style, making Tom Barnaby seem like an "everyman"...with a keen, intelligent detective hiding underneath. Dudgeon's character is younger, and his home life differs from Tom's, as well (no kids, but he has a dog), but Dudgeon wisely keeps everything subdued here, much like Nettles, so the audience can get used to him. Is that a good strategy in the long run (particularly since his character's set-up is so wobbly at this point―more below), is another matter (the producers no doubt wanted some kind of continuity for this international money-making series...but how long will it last with a character that plays merely like a calculated "stand in" for the original star?).
As for the episode itself, it's successful in fits and starts, but scriptwriter Michael Aitkens takes several missteps that frankly baffled me―starting with a mystery that wasn't a mystery at all. As I've written numerous times before, I'm the anti-Columbo. I go out of my way not to try and solve a mystery I'm watching or reading, because I love that feeling of being baffled and tricked by the author. I almost never figure these things out...so when I solved Death in the Slow Lane almost by default when someone early on made a big deal about a ginger, I was shocked Aitkens really went with that obvious solution. And I'm sorry, but I don't care how quaint and funny and quirky Midsomer can be...that mystery had better hold up at least past the first 15 minutes. And that's not the only mistake―why would any loyal viewer of the show believe Ben Jones would act like a rookie copper flubbing his first crime scene, as he's portrayed here? It's just not a believable set-up, with it coming off as an arbitrary motivation contrivance to establish an unnecessary conflict with his new boss. Aitkens couldn't come up with something more clever, more in keeping with the character, particularly when the Jones character is known for being a nuts-and-bolts copper? Sure there are amusing moments here (the available ladies "welcome wagon" beating a path to John's door...as well as a gay men's club), and the local toffs' snobbery towards John, even to the point of supporting Ben for the top spot because he's a "local." However, when you have Barnaby talking to his too-cute-for-words dog Sykes (it's almost as if the producers are begging us to like the new Barnaby; their calculation is evident when Aitkens stoops to include a pissing gag), and incongruously throwing out that he doesn't believe in God (a well-known gripe with the regular Midsomer contributors), you have to wonder just who the hell the producers thought they were writing this for: loyal fans, or viewers who had never seen the show before.
Slimcase synopsis: "After attempting to pay a visit to a reclusive couple, a social services investigator is found dead in a nearby creek. Barnaby and Jones race to unravel a series of long-standing secrets and scandals in order to find the killer. Meanwhile, Barnaby's wife arrives in Causton, where she receives a less-than-enthusiastic welcome."
A better effort by scripter Aitkens, but only just, with the introduction of John's wife Sarah of more interest than the half-hearted mystery you can pretty much get a handle on due to one miscued performance. In the "old" Midsomer, I would suspect a lot more jokes and satire would have been directed at Dark Secrets's core story arc―the murder of a social services agent―than we get here. Instead, that potentially ripe material is ignored as we muddle through a fairly transparent tale of senility (or more accurately, the drug-ravaged elderly) and revenge within a broken family, with incest yet again creeping in as a subtext (this time treated as a joke by Aitkens―right down to employing a vomiting gag for punctuation). I did enjoy how Aitkens wove in Sarah's personnel problems at the school with a key figure in the mystery, with Barnaby solving both, much to Sarah's amusement. I also liked the very brief interactions between Dudgeon and Dolman, the sexy new "Midsomer Wife" (is John the more passionate Barnaby?)...but I have a feeling she's going to be largely peripheral to the show―even more so than Jane Wymark―as evidenced by Sykes the dog getting all the best scenes. Always great to see Edward Fox, but he has so little to do here you wonder why he took the part.
ECHOES OF THE DEAD
Slimcase synopsis: "Newly single Dianne Price is discovered drowned in her bathtub and staged to look like a bride. When more murders follow, the detectives realize that the cases bear eerie similarities to notorious murders from the past. Barnaby and Jones race to catch the copycat killer before the body count rises further."
One of the lamest Midsomer Murders I've seen. Scripted by Peter J. Hammond, Echoes of the Dead begins with a mesmerizing opening sequence of a pretty girl (Sarah Smart) biking through the gorgeous countryside, before she returns home to find her roommate, dressed as a bride, drowned in the tub. What follows is a tense, surprisingly unfunny Midsomer Murders that I thought might actually be one of the better examples of the show from these later seasons...until Hammond, aided by careless direction from Nick Laughland SPOILER ALERT! and an obvious performance by Adrian Rawlins, lets the cat out of the bag the second Rawlins' religious kook shows up. Even if you somehow couldn't figure out all the painfully apparent red herring suspects, Rawlins' turn here, courtesy also of Laughland's (lack of ) guidance and Hammond's scripting, makes it pretty clear who did what and even why when you hear he's a history teacher, too (even Dudgeon can't resist an eye-roll reaction when Rawlins first has to give his alibi). As for Midsomer's persistent anti-Christian bias (I don't remember the show featuring any Jewish zealot/murderers...and we know they wouldn't have the guts to feature a Muslim one), it's frankly become tiresome―and this from your atheist movie reviewer, dear reader. I guess you can't expect anything else from England's aggressively secular television, but its predictable presence on Midsomer after Midsomer episode is not only intellectually dishonest...it's boring as hell just from a murder mystery convention angle: it's the cliched equivalent of "the butler did it." anytime any mentions God.
THE OBLONG MURDERS
Slimcase synopsis: "Barnaby and Jones are called in to investigate when a member of the Oblong Foundation, a new-age cult, disappears. Jones must skip his vacation to go undercover among the cultists, and the detective soon learns of prior deaths that may not have been accidental."
So long, Dr. George Bullard. The Oblong Murders plays more like two mini-Midsomer episodes rolled into one: the murder mystery proper, and the efforts of John and Sarah Barnaby to get their dog Sykes enrolled in George Bullard's sister Millie's (Barbara Flynn) home dog minder group. Needless to say, considering the iffy nature of the previous three entries in this new start-up of the series, the dogs get the better end of the stick here. Scripted by David Hoskins, the murder mystery angle of The Oblong Murders is again, distressingly conventional...although to be fair, this particular one I didn't figure out (at least to its credit, some late-term facts, Christie-style, magically appeared at the finale). Once the murder was explained, it failed to have much of an impact, though, with its jabs at cults and dog lovers and intolerant parents quite tame (the best thing in the whole episode was "Combover Guy" Simon Day, as a hopeless, randy old fart joining the cult for the promotional come-on of "free love"). The dog story, though, was quite amusing...and that's the problem with The Oblong Murders, and it would seem at this point, Midsomer Murders itself: it can't seem to meld the comedy with the murder in as seamless and grotesquely hilarious a manner as it once did routinely, season after season. I'm not even sure I like the whole Sykes the dog element because it's so relentlessly pushed in our faces for us to go, "Awwww, the wee doggie's so cute!" I know he's cute, but Midsomer Murders in its prime was never cute. It was vicious and murderous and cruel and wickedly funny, and it didn't need a little whelp to wring laughs anytime the action was flagging. Just as its cravenly calculated to have the departing George Bullard character give newcomer John Barnaby a smile and a "You're getting there," to tell the viewers everything's okay with Nettles' replacement (why not have some guts and be interesting and have Bullard never like John?), the same thing goes everytime that wannabe Thin Man mutt shows up on screen. You want me to like the new Midsomer Murders? You want me to like the John Barnaby character? Then quit screwing around with the formula and get back to basics.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.