The 19th season of the British TV series Midsomer Murders has started streaming on Netflix. This is quite an achievement in longevity. I wrote about this long-running show two years ago and it sparked a lot of interesting comments and suggestions for other similar series. Thanks to those, I have watched episodes of Death in Paradise, Inspector Morse, and the first two seasons of the much more superior show (in terms of writing, acting, and plotting) of Broadchurch and am looking forward to the third.
But for all its weaknesses, there is something curiously addictive about Midsomer. To say that the show is formulaic is putting it mildly and yet that predictability is perhaps part of its appeal, akin to the charm of an Agatha Christie novel. One settles in to a routine and knows what to expect. Each episode begins with a murder fairly early on, often before the opening credits, and there may be as many as three more murders before the culprit is identified and confronted at which point he or she confesses everything and is led away. Each murder is followed by the murder scene and victim being examined by the forensic pathologist, and discussions of the case by Chief Detective Inspector Barnaby and his Detective Sergeant assistant. These three, and the chief’s spouse, are the only regulars on the show and they have all been replaced at various times. We have had two CDIs and spouses, three pathologists, and five DSs.
The running joke is that the first Barnaby was a simple, down-to-Earth man, scornful of superstition and the supernatural, and whose idea of a good time is to stay at home, watch TV, have a simple meat-and-potatoes meal, and the occasional drink at the pub, while his wife Joyce fancies herself as a gourmet cook and tries out new recipes that he forces himself to eat. She also seems to be involved in every cultural activity and club in the region and insists on dragging him along. This plot device enables her to coincidentally be part of the action in most of the murders. Her involvement happened so often that the writers could have easily ended the series by making her into a Moriarty-like figure who was secretly the brains behind most of the murders. But she disappeared along with the retirement of her husband who was replaced by his cousin with the same last name. The second Barnaby is not a party animal either but his wife is now headmistress of a local school and does not get involved in the cases as much.
The series milks the stereotypical village atmosphere for all its worth. It seems like these villages are full of festivals and cultural clubs and events involving fairs and pageants and floats and dressing up that form the backdrop for the murders. After a while, one tends to overlook the implausibility of many of the plots and motives and instead focuses on other aspects of the series. As the series progressed, it has given up on realistic plots and become more campy with the writers trying to tweak the formula by providing ever more exotic forms of death. We have had beheadings with guillotines and swords, impalings, burials in concrete, killings by dropped gargoyles or a giant ball of cheese, crushing by piles of newspapers, explosions, and death by every conceivable garden and farm implements, venomous exotic snakes, crushing by an armored tank, and even by cricket balls fired at high speed from the bowling machines used in practices. If one’s opinions of English village life were shaped by this series, one would never venture out alone in the dark because one is likely to be run through with a pitchfork or worse.
I have learned that the opening sequences feature all the main characters and one needs to follow closely all the names and the relationships. The biggest implausibility is that we are supposed to believe that ordinary people can be pushed to become multiple killers due to circumstances in their lives. They not only do several murders well, they manage to act normally between them. For any ordinary person, committing a murder would be a traumatic event that would leave them pretty shaken. But the ordinary people of Midsomer murder with the coolness and aplomb of Mafia hit men and are even better than them at hiding their tracks, at least for a while.
For a rational person to commit a murder, you need motive, means, and opportunity. In fictional murder mysteries of this genre, the villain also needs to be fairly prominent in the story because it would against the unwritten rules to have as the murderer someone who appeared only peripherally. So the only way to hide the culprit in plain sight is to provide many people with motives and secrets that they are hiding that have nothing to do with the murders but serve to make them look suspicious. And, boy, are there secrets! In Midsomer county everyone, other than the regulars, seem to be having secret affairs with everyone else, so the motive of jealousy or inheritance due to secret kinship as a result of out-of-wedlock children can suddenly emerge. In fact, sex and sexual intrigue and even incest seem to be the main activity in English villages, taking second place only to drinking tea or consuming beer in the local pub.
Initially, the show consisted almost exclusively of white people and when asked why this was so, the creator said that he was trying to keep the series ‘typically English’. As you can imagine, that did not go well and he was replaced. The series now has people of color all over the place (including the pathologist) and inter-racial couples and relationships are common.
There were some interesting class overtones early on in the series, though that has largely disappeared. Rich people and the nobility and the landed gentry play major roles but also tend to be portrayed negatively as rude and obnoxious and officious and condescending. The clergy and other religious people also do not fare well in the series, coming across as hypocrites and petty and vindictive and mean. The first chief Barnaby is clearly anti-snob and not religious and while polite to the upper classes, clearly relishes the opportunity to get in his digs at them. And he has plenty of opportunities to do so since much of the action involves upper class people and their activities in their exclusive clubs, such as horse racing, cricket, archery, golf, rowing, bird watching, and so on. Over time the first Barnaby became more irascible and less tolerant of the upper classes treating him like a peon, but his replacement (who is his cousin with the same last name) is less prickly and more cerebral.