Screening Bloody Murder
If I could have back the hours I’ve spent mindlessly watching British crime drama series, I could devote that time to the causes of world peace, finding a cure for cancer or writing a passable murder-mystery script.
Instead, my wife and I have devoted our Saturday and Sunday evenings for years — and more than a few weeknights — to munching on Goldfish pretzels and Ritz biscuits before a body-strewn wasteland of such police, detective and amateur-sleuth procedural whodunits as Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis, Endeavour, Luther, Vera, Shetland, Silent Witness, Midsomer Murders, Sherlock, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, McDonald & Dodds, Broadchurch, Inspector George Gently, Line of Duty, Death in Paradise, Grantchester, Wallander, Ripper Street, Van der Valk, Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime, Scott & Bailey, Bodyguard, Pie in the Sky, Cracker, Silent Witness, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Whitechapel, Wire in the Blood, New Tricks, Foyle’s War, Shakespeare & Hathaway, DCI Banks, Prime Suspect, A Touch of Frost, Father Brown, Happy Valley, Life on Mars, Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (the better of the two, though they both kind of suck), Poirot, Strike, Dalziel & Pascoe, Vienna Blood, Maigret (times two), Hinterland, Waking the Dead, Manhunt, Unforgotten and a few I’ve surely forgotten.
We don’t get out much.
And that’s not even counting hours lost to mini-series psychological thrillers (think Ordeal by Innocence or The ABC Murders) to come out of Britain in recent years, or — oi you! — similar Irish/Northern Irish programs (Jack Taylor, Single-Handed, Harry Wild, Bloodlands, The Fall) or alternatively accented antipodal fare: Top of the Lake, The Doctor Blake Mysteries, The Brokenwood Mysteries, Harrow, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and so on. In Aussie speak for give them a boo: “Have a Captain Cook sometime.”
Prestigious U.K. series have included multiple Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA and Emmy Award winners as their leads: Kenneth Branagh, say, the eponymous police inspector in the British adaptation of the Swedish series Wallander, who also enjoyed turns at playing Hercule Poirot in the 2017 film Murder on the Orient Express and last year’s Death on the Nile. Prime Suspect starred Dame Helen Mirren as no-nonsense, temple-rubbing Jane Tennison, one of the first female Chief Detective Inspectors to serve on Greater London’s Metropolitan Police Service. (Every season of Prime Suspect always felt to me like a 3 1/2-hour commercial for Anacin.)
Some shows feature less lauded but nonetheless famous actors whose faces, voices and inescapable mannerisms are difficult for viewers to dissociate from previous roles, à la Andy Griffith in the milk-heavy legal drama Matlock (where the down-home spectre of Andy of Mayberry routinely stalked the courtroom) or Carol O’Connor in the NBC/CBS crime drama In the Heat of the Night (dick around as a small-town Mississippi police chief if you want to, but once a Bunker, you dingbat, always a Bunker).
It’s early innings, but the jury is out on whether Martin Clunes can ever fully free himself of Dr. Martin Ellingham’s omnipresent medical bag as Metropolitan Police select Chief Detective Inspector Colin Sutton in ITV’s promising series Manhunt. Gillian Anderson was superb as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson in The Fall, but I couldn’t help seeing Special Agent Dana Scully peeking out from under those blond bangs. Or was it Agent of Chaos Margaret Thatcher?
I dug both the Michael Gambon and Rowan Atkinson riffs on French detective Jules Maigret, but in the latter rendering, found myself anticipating the sudden intervention of a 1977 Leyland Cars Mini 1000 Mark IV to whisk Mr. Bean away in an Austin Citron haze.
Whatever. Weighing all the evidence, this has all amounted to a criminal waste of our time.
And as for all the years devoted to rotting our minds on North American crime shows — from Dragnet to Kojak to Ironside to The Mod Squad to Murder, She Wrote to Miami Vice to The Rockford Files to Hart to Hart to Starsky & Hutch to The Streets of San Francisco to Baretta to Charlie’s Angels to Hill Street Blues to Moonlighting to NYPD Blue to MacGyver to Mannix to Mike Hammer to Remington Steele to the Law & Order and CSI multiverses to Magnum P.I. (both versions), to Hawaii Five-O (ditto) to Cagney & Lacey to 24 — well, I just wish we’d listened to an admonition to be careful out there. Who loves ya, baby?
At this point, an awkward and apparently befuddled Lt. Frank Columbo ambles toward the door in his shabby trenchcoat, fumbles theatrically in his pockets, turns slowly and says: “Just one more thing.”
Just the facticity, ma’am: North American TV shows are usually less sophisticated and more predictable than their British counterparts. And that goes double for Due South and Murdoch Mysteries, so a Canadian touch is no help at all (much as we miss Wojeck, which dangled the tantalizing prospect of a glimpse of Sunday night nudity, which is why I bamboozled my dad into believing that my teacher had insisted that I stay up past The Ed Sullivan Show to watch the series about a crusading coroner who would grow up to become Dean Wormer in Animal House.)
The time has come for someone to put his foot down. And that foot is me. Hey, you, get off of McCloud.
That’s not to say there isn’t an abominable whack of hoary tropes, commonplace clichés and formulaic conventions that any aficionado of Britnigma detective drama, to coin a phrase, will have soaked into the tingling Spidey-sense spines on the axons and dendrites of their little grey cells.
These matter only because one of the great joys of watching these shows is the opportunity they afford to show off your own observational and inductive powers by figuring out the identity of the culprits before all is revealed. (I like to think of it as a three-pint problem. Turns out fat, drunk and stupid is a pleasurable way to go through life, son.)
In no particular order, here are 10 rules to follow if you want to nail Col. Mustard (in the library with the candlestick) on your own before the tension-dispersing dénouement in which Lewis and Hathaway pop into the Penny Farthing or the Waddling Dog for a case-closing Guinness:
10) The Counter-Reality Rule: Unlike 99 per cent of the real crimes in the real world, the obvious suspect is never the murderer, notwithstanding his or her visceral hatred for, longstanding conflict with and recent threats toward the victim.
9) The Nice Meeting You Rule: The character interviewed by the police who seems initially most affable, innocent and co-operative is almost always the baddie, especially if he or she is a retired superior officer (who almost never uses “they” and “them” as their pronouns). Oh, and speaking of boss cops: They are universally cowed by the corrupt moneyed class and can never remember from week to week that their own instincts are always proven humiliatingly wrong while those of the crack snoops whom they unfailingly browbeat and deride are unfailingly vindicated.
8) The Best-Known Actor Who Isn’t a Regular on the Show Rule: The character whose real name you can’t remember but whom you recognize from other British TV shows is usually guilty as sin. Crafty directors and producers sometimes throw audiences a curveball by flouting this one, but if they’re paying an experienced actor among the dramatis personae twice what the entry-level people are getting, they generally want their money’s worth.
7) The Chekov’s Gun (Here We Go Again) Rule: If a character is introduced early on who has no obvious reason to be there (the shifty-eyed husband or boyfriend who answers the door but then fades into the background), book ’em, Danno.
6) The Multiple Red Herrings Rule: Shows like Vera or Midsomer Murders delight in casting suspicion on numerous persons of interest, all of whom have something to hide (embezzlement, an affair, a vendetta, a creepy crush, a secret family connection and like that), but only the one circled back to in the final 10 minutes will be our serial killer.
5) The Oh, Did I Mention a Serial Killer Rule? Snitches are guaranteed cannon fodder. Anyone who arranges to meet investigating officers the next day with something important they’ve just learned will be dead before sunrise. (Somehow, the crack detective will not remember this from last week’s episode.) And no matter how many flashlight-wielding erstwhile suspects become eternal victims after hearing a noise in the dark (other than the standard canned owl sounds) and gormlessly going outside or down into the basement to investigate, where they are guaranteed to be offed by someone they know and are surprised to see in their final seconds on Earth — “Oh, what are you doing here?” — the good guys will sweep in at the last minute to save one poor sod hooked up to an unnecessarily complicated torture apparatus cum killing machine. The killer will be gradually disarmed by the clever copper’s long-winded explanation of their motives, dating back to 1991: “I’ll sign any admission of guilt you want me to sign … but for the love of God, just stop talking.”
4) The Sudden Flash of Inspiration Rule: Inevitably, the lead gumshoe in possession of an uncanny intuition no one else shares except on other detective shows will be completely stumped, confounded, perplexed and flummoxed until someone from outside the force, not infrequently his wife (whose life is one amazing coincidence after another) or the heretofore prime suspect, will casually mention something seemingly unrelated that drops the penny and really ties the room together. A race to the scene where the last poor sod is about to be whacked quickly ensues. In the nick of time! As for the other four people terminated, dispatched, extinguished and coup de grâced during the course of the investigation … sorry about that, chief.
3) The Past Is Never Dead, It’s Not Even Past Rule: Nine times out of ten, an injustice from 20 or 30 years ago will be the key to solving the mystery behind yesterday’s stabbing on the staircase. Did we mention 1991? (Where Vera shops for her hats will, however, remain a closely guarded secret.)
2) The Let’s Wrap This Incoherent Mess Up Quickly Rule: When all else fails, nighttime CCTV footage no one thought of unspooling for the first 50 minutes of the show (despite their office’s role as a pillar of the surveillance economy now enveloping us all) will reveal the identity of the perp, clear as day. Guess we didn’t need all those gory closeups from the morgue after all, though they did give rise to plenty of amusing banter. Scan the QR code on the toe tag, slide down the banister and we’re out. Anyone fancy a Chicken Big Mac at McDonald’s?
The Why We Can Never Remember the Ending Rule: I know we’ve seen this episode at least once before, probably twice, but I’ll be buggered if I can remember who … who …. munch, munch .... zaw, zawwwwwww, pssshhhhh, zawwwwww. (To be continued in 2025, when this airs again and we won’t realize till halfway through that we’ve already seen it. Won’t matter anyway because we’ll be getting sleepy again and still won’t remember who … who … munch, munch ... zaw, zawwwwwww, hissssssssss, zawwwwww …)