She ain't even Miss Marple...let alone Mrs. Peel. Acorn Media has released Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 1, a 4-disc, 13-episode collection of the 2012 period murder mystery series from Australian television, starring Essie Davis, Nathan Page, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Ashleigh Cummings, Miriam Margolyes, and Nicholas Bell. Based on the novels by Kerry Greenwood, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries won't fool hard-core Christie or Sayers fans...nor will it especially surprise anyone with its by now familiar mix of leaden social commentary strapped to clunky female Bulldog Drummond antics. A few extras are included for these sparkling widescreen transfers.Melbourne, Australia, 1928. Wealthy, titled, devil-may-care sexual libertine knockout Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis), the very embodiment of the free-spirited flapper feminist of the post-WWI Western world, has returned to Australia to make sure imprisoned child killer Murdoch Foyle (Nicholas Bell) remains behind bars. Phryne is convinced that Foyle is the man responsible for the disappearance (and presumed death) of her little sister years ago--"a theory, unfortunately, she can't prove...and with time running out on Murdoch's sentence. In the meantime, Phryne quite by accident--"but not by lack of brains and guts--"proves herself to be adept at solving various heinous crimes and murders, leading to her new career path as a private sleuth for hire. Along the way, she acquires an extended family: Dot Williams (Ashleigh Cummings), a shy Catholic girl whom Phryne rescues to be her servant; Bert and Cec (Travis McMahon and Anthony Sharpe), two laborers who serve as Phryne's chauffeurs, general dogsbodies, and legmen; and Mr. Butler (Richard Bligh), who naturally is her butler. Handsome Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), of the Melbourne Police, is at first irritated by Phyrne's pushy, interfering ways...but once he sees how clever and useful she can be in an investigation, he develops an admiration for her skills that's soon reciprocated.
Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is exactly the kind of new TV series that attracts fans who ignore its aesthetic faults because its political/gender/social consciousness subtexts are, to their minds, "in the right place." If I loved Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries while watching it, then to those fans I wouldn't be expected to explain why in this review because it wouldn't matter anymore. I'd be a fellow enlightened soul (without any real evidence to that fact, mind you--that kind of political correctness identification among like-minded fans is necessarily superficial), hip to the show's so-called edgy, trendy twist on the hoary old "period piece mystery with a wealthy, eccentric private detective" genre. However, if I found Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries lacking in several regards, well...to a lot of fans of the show and the novels that would be because I'm a "hater" (such a common term), and because I don't like shows about strong, independent women, or shows about social issues, or other such silly, derogatory generalizations (and that's not a generalization on my part--a quick search of fan sites seems to indicate the majority of the show's viewers like Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries at least as much or more so for its gender politics and social commentary as for its mysteries).
I certainly don't have a problem with Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries's attempt to show a sexually loose, independent, strong-minded, intelligent female protagonist; after all, if we're only staying on the surface and discussing complex issues through the filter of essentially silly TV entertainments, I grew up thinking the ideal woman wasn't Mrs. Cleaver but Mrs. Emma Peel (check out my review of Honey West, which is along the same lines). The major problem I had with Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries wasn't the ideas behind the mystery frameworks, it was the smug, self-satisfied, facile tone that permeates its own stealth moralizing--a narrowly-focused tone that permeates so much of television today, and which is no different in effect than the line the Big Three were spinning back in the 1950s. If the Phryne Fisher of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries wants to flip off the last remaining remnants of post-WWI Victorian Australia by brandishing a gold-plated pistol, dancing the hoochie-coochie at nightclubs, and f*ucking anything pretty in pants that walks by, I say, "Bring it on." That sounds like exactly the kind of female detective I want to watch. And if Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries had stayed at just that level, with tongue firmly in cheek and with no pretensions other than to entertain, it would have received high marks from me...no matter how trite and cursory its mysteries were.
However, the producers of this series truly believe that Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries has "something important to say" around the edges of its rather simple mysteries, and that's where the show and I departed company. The gamey, righteous, feel-good liberal slush that passes for on-the-down-low multifaceted dramaturgy in Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is the same kind of deliberately vague (because it's one-sided and largely puerile) socio-political undercurrent that flows through other so-called "revisionist" period pieces today, like Mad Men. When Miss Fisher snorts and sneers and glares at any purveyor of the "old standards," that's all well and good...but let's not call that billboarding ground-breaking or even mildly complex, because the writers never present "the other side" intelligently, nor, more importantly, do they question Miss Fisher and her views.
Which leaves us with the mysteries and the production itself. When you have to start off defending a mystery series by stating, "Well...the mystery plots aren't so great, but that's okay because Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is about other things, like...issues and, um...how hot Essie Davis is," then you have a problem, because on some basic level, a mystery series should be at least a little bit impenetrable to the average viewer. And Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries isn't so much. Now I've written numerous times before about my abilities as an amateur sleuth--that would be zero abilities--so when I was able to suss out the criminals in the first six episodes of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries without even taking notes, I feel safe in stating that even the most casual of mystery fans won't find Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries's mental puzzles very taxing. So if we eliminate that element, we're only left with...what? The sets and the actors? Nobody can fault Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries for its careful, museum-quality evocations of period decor, even if you, like me, always find these obvious, antiquey TV re-creations just a tad too clean, too sterile. As for the performances, the linchpin has to be Davis; after all, she's carrying the entire show on her overly-muscled traps (she should stick to the high fur collars; in some of those flapper gowns, it looks like someone got caught with their hand in the growth hormone jar). From what I've read, I'm apparently the only reviewer who found 40-year-old flapper Davis' turn here--more than half of which is in that Louise Brooks bob--wanting. However, I'm not going to praise yet another modern actress, largely devoid of that elusive quality known as charm, who confuses abrasiveness and downright cold pissiness for female independence, all topped off with a series of unattractive smirks and glares and stiff shrugged shoulders to simulate chic sophistication. It's a bore of a performance, quite frankly, certainly not sexy or truly erotic...which, come to think of it, pretty much fits this bore of a mystery series.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.