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Midsomer Murders - The Early Cases Collection
Acron Media has been releasing the popular and long running British murder mystery series Midsomer Murders since 2003 and they just came out with the show's tenth season (read Paul Mavis' review of that set here.) When the show was first released it wasn't in season sets however. The first two collections contained mixtures of shows from seasons two and three, and the first season didn't appear until set five. They've since corrected that mistake, and sets six and on each contain a single season's worth of shows. Now Acorn has gone back and re-released the first seasons of the show in order as Midsomer Murders: The Early Cases. This massive 19-disc set contains the first four seasons (missing only the last episode of season four) of this witty, engaging and very enjoyable show.
"It's just that I like living in Causton. Think about it Joyce: Every time I go into any Midsomer Village it's always the same thing: Blackmail, sexual deviancy, suicide, and murder. How can you possibly expect me to go and live in one of them?" - DCI Barnaby.
Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) lives in the city of Causton, but his jurisdiction covers all of Midsomer County. To first appearances, Midsomer is a typical, quite British county nestled in the countryside. Whenever someone turns up dead, Barnaby and his long suffering partner Sergeant Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey) investigate and discover that beneath a town's quiet demeanor lay some unexpected secrets including incest, pedophilia, blackmail, wife swapping, and psychopaths. The show has all the trappings of a cozy British mystery. The plots involve fox-hunting, Cricket, a haunted estate, and other trappings often associated with British crime fiction, but the crimes (which are almost all off camera) and solutions are a bit more twisted (and interesting) than the locale would lead viewers to believe.
Firmly a mystery show, Midsomers Murders adds a nice dollop of very dry humor to each episode's mystery that really helps to drive the series. There are several running gags that work well since they aren't overdone; Sgt Troy's stating of the obvious ("The victim is over there, under the sheet." "Thank you Troy, I never would have found him without you."), Troy's horrible driving skills, Joyce Barnaby's (wonderfully played by Jane Wymark) wretched cooking, and Barnaby's total obsession with a case ("[When] we got married it was a registry office and you're father was in the middle of a case. He didn't say 'I do' he said 'I've got it' and that was the last I saw of him until the honeymoon.") This isn't Monty Python humor, but subtle and quite jokes that are all the more funny because of they are down-played.
While the show does have its humorous moments, the cast of characters, both leading and supporting, are what makes people tune in show after show. Barnaby is an old-school copper, who is intelligent but not uppity. Small inconsistencies will get him thinking and he doesn't stop pondering a case until it's solved. He's very down to earth and easy to identify with; he'd rather have a steak than a fancy French meal and is perfectly happy puttering around the house on his days off. Sgt. Troy, the young and inexperienced officer, is just as enjoyable with his striving to please. He's a good foil for Barnaby's dry humor and also the person who voices what the audience is thinking. "But couldn't this be a simple accident?"
One of the things that are surprising about this show, after having been practically weaned on American cop shows, is that they do things very differently in England. There were several times that Barnaby and/or Troy enters a dangerous situation without drawing their side arms. Of course they don't have them, but I had to continually remind myself of that. In another episode some ruffians want to disperse a group of gypsies and they bring along baseball and cricket bats to do it. No handguns at all.
Even more surprising than that are the times that Barnaby orders Troy to break into someone's house without a warrant. In one episode they even used evidence that Troy found during one of these entries to get a suspect to confess. That wouldn't have flown here in the US. Here the suspect would laugh and say "great! That'll never be used against me in a court of law."
Though these shows can be watched in any order, there is a small amount of continuity that makes the show a lot of fun. In some episodes supporting characters from earlier cases turn up, and there're some very minor plot threads that run through more than one show.
As was mentioned earlier, these shows were originally released out of order, and watching the show I can see why. Some of the earlier episodes are adaptations of novels by Caroline Graham, on which the series is based, and these ironically aren't as agreeable as the episodes that were written especially for the show. The later programs are generally stronger. The writers have a firmer grasp of the characters, and the mysteries are a bit tighter. While the beginning shows aren't bad, the series does improve as it ages.
The episodes in this set are:
Season One (1997/98):
The Killings at Badger's Drift: The pilot episode. When an old lady is out looking for orchids in the woods she sees something disturbing and runs home. Soon afterwards she's killed. Who would want to kill a retired teacher? And why do the bodies start piling up as Barnaby and Troy investigate? This is an interesting mystery with an unexpected conclusion.
Written in Blood: After a popular write agrees to address a small writers group in Midsomer Worthy, the leader of the group is found brutally murdered. All of his clothes are missing, but what's even more unusual is that he doesn't appear to exist officially.
Death of a Hollow Man: When an older lady is found bludgeoned to death and floating in a river, Barnaby and Troy have their work cut out for them. Things get even more grisly when an actor in a local amateur company is murdered on stage in front of an audience.
Faithful Unto Death: The residents of Morton Fendle think they've been swindled by an investor who was trying to turn the old mill into an arts and crafts center. When the investor announces that the project is bankrupt everyone is irate, but when his wife is kidnapped soon after it looks like the mob has something against the man too. This was the only episode that didn't really work. The ending was a let down and seemed very unsatisfactory.
Death in Disguise: When the part owner of a new-age commune falls down the stairs and dies while arguing with the center's guru, no one is totally sure if the death was an accident. But when the guru is found with a knife in his chest Barnaby and Troy have to unravel the two dead men's interesting past.
Season Two (1999):
Death's Shadow: When a real estate developer is hacked to death in Badger's Drift, there is no shortage of suspects. The case takes an interesting twist when Barnaby finds out that the murdered man was dying of brain cancer. Something everyone in the village knew.
Strangler's Wood: When a young girl is found in the woods, strangled with a necktie, everyone recalls the serial killer who stalked the area nine years ago and was never found. Has he returned or is a new psychopath on the loose? One of the better episodes with some nice twists.
Dead Man's Eleven: The second wife of the local land owner is found murdered with a cricket club. Could the man's eldest son, who always resented his father's trophy wife, be responsible? All clues point to the son being guilty, but Barnaby thinks things look too neat and tidy and that there's another person responsible for the killing.
Blood Will Out: When a group of gypsies (called "travelers" in the show) arrive in town the local blow-hard tries to intimidate them into leaving. It doesn't work, and instead the bully is found dead in his own house. Could the gypsies be responsible, or was the man he traded wives with involved?
Season Three (1999-2000):
Death of a Stranger: When a tramp is killed in the woods it looks like an open and shut case, especially since a local thug's bloody fingerprints were found on the murder weapon. Nothing is ever that simple however, and Barnaby uncovers a plot that goes back a generation.
Blue Herrings: A wonderful episode if you remember the title. When Barnaby's aunt is recuperating in an old person's home, some of the octogenarians die. There's nothing strange in that, but the residents start talking about murder, and though it doesn't look like foul play, Barnaby agrees to take a look.
Judgement Day: Another fun episode. When one of the finalists for the "Perfect Village" contest has a murder, the town elders hope that it won't get out an influence the judges. It seems like anyone could have done it, since the victim was universally hated, but there's something more sinister going on in the seemingly ideal town.
Beyond the Grave: This is the show's haunted mansion episode. When a painting at a museum is slashed, the widow of a computer software magnate is called in to fix the painting. She's had a fragile psyche since her husband died, and the events in the museum convince her that her departed husband is trying to contact her. Some nice twists in this one that I quite enjoyed.
Season Four (2000/2001):
Garden of Death: When the new owners of a large section of land announce plans to turn a memorial garden into a tea shop the locals are up in arms. Were any of them angry enough to kill however?
Destroying Angel: When the head of the owner of part of a hotel is discovered in the woods his partners start to worry....and die.
The Electric Vendetta: A fun if slightly silly mystery. When the naked body of a man is found in the middle of a crop circle, the villagers think that aliens are responsible. Barnaby doesn't swallow that theory. What else could explain the hole at the spine, terrified expression, burn marks and missing hair on the victim?
Who Killed Cock Robin?: Barnaby and Troy answer the call of a country doctor. While driving home the physician hit a man and goes to a nearby pub for help. When they return to the scene, the body is gone. A horse whisperer is also missing from the village, and then there's the body that's found in a well.
Dark Autumn: The final story in this set is a good one. When the postman for Goodman's Land is found with is throat slit, the investigation soon reveals that he had seduced most of the women in the village. It looks like one of the cuckolds is responsible until more bodies start showing up.
These shows come on 19 DVDs, with one hour and a half (roughly) episode per disc. They are housed in a nice multi-page book, with one disc on each side of the page. The discs appear to be identical to the original releases. These shows originally appeared in sets 1, 2, 3, and 5.
These shows come with a stereo soundtrack that fits the show well. Being dialog based, there isn't a lot of use of the soundstage and the show is never flashy in the audio department. Still, the discussions are easy to understand and that's the important thing. There are no subtitles.
The first two seasons come with a 1.66:1 non-anamorphic image, but the rest of the shows boast a 1.75:1 picture that is anamorphically enhanced. The image is never stunning, it's soft throughout and the colors are a bit drab, but the show looks adequate. I was expecting a bit more definition to the picture but I can live with it. There are only minor digital defects, a little aliasing in a scene or two, but nothing dramatic. Overall this is an average looking disc.
Each disc comes with a few minor bonus features. There's an actor's filmography, bibliography of author Caroline Graham, and a map of Midsomer County.
The final disc in the set is devoted to an episode of the TV show Super Sleuths that looks at Midsomer Murders. This 45 minute program is pretty interesting and has interviews with the cast and crew including a nice chat with author Caroline Graham. There's a section on the music for the series, especially the theme song, which discusses the Theremin that is used. There's even an example of Daniel Casey playing an instrument: the spoons.
This is a fun and enjoyable series. Filled with odd and likeable characters, some crackin' mysteries and a nice dollop of humor, mystery fans will have a great time watching the early episodes of this wonderful series. If you already have sets 1-3 and 5, the only extra included with this is the bonus episode of Super Sleuths. I wouldn't say it's worth double-dipping just for that, but viewers who don't have those earlier releases will want to pick this up. Highly Recommended.
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