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Thursday, February 24, 2011

MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 17 -- DVD review by porfle

If you've ever joined one of those detective book clubs, you're probably familiar with the comforting feeling one gets from being in the company of a familiar, well-liked character, usually brilliant but a bit eccentric, as he or she solves baffling but rather generic murder mysteries at a leisurely pace.  Watching an episode of the long-running British TV series "Midsomer Murders", which debuted in 1997, is like cracking open one of those books and settling in for a good read. 

Acorn Media's four-disc DVD collection MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 17 introduces the uninitiated such as myself to Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), a middle-aged senior member of the local constabulary trying to keep a lid on homicide in pastoral Midsomer County.  (Like Cabot Cove in TV's "Murder She Wrote", the place seems to have an appalling murder rate.)  A former member of MI6, Barnaby has a sharp eye and a keen mind, while his no-nonsense approach to detective work is tempered by a friendly, optimistic demeanor and flashes of dry wit.  Soft-spoken and polite, he can't abide someone lying to him and is always attentive for some telling clue that will make everything fall into place.

Barnaby's third partner in the series, Detective Sergeant Ben Jones (Jason Hughes), is young and inexperienced but, unlike a lot of sidekicks, isn't a total buffoon.  There's a nice mentor-pupil relationship between the two and we can imagine Jones evolving into an ace detective someday with Barnaby as a role model.  Still, he's just enough of a bumbler to provide occasional comic relief.  On the homefront, Barnaby's wife Joyce (Jane Wymark) needles him to take part in social and leisure activities while he'd rather just kick back and watch telly on his days off.  Since they live in such a small community, her own activities often tie in with his investigations in various ways.

The four feature-length stories in this set begin with "The Dogleg Murders", which takes place at an upper-class golfing club.  A murder by putter near the 13th hole turns out to be the first in a series which may be somehow related to the efforts of certain people to gain membership to the exclusive club.  Other factors such as loan-sharking and domestic turmoil factor into the plot as well.  As usual, there are several suspects, all with a motive for murder.

The setting for this episode is apt, since the game pretty much typifies the quiet, low-key, and unhurried style of the show itself.  Little violence is shown and the emphasis is on character interplay and Barnaby's methodical detective work rather than action, with the small exception of Jones' pursuit of a suspect through the woods.  (A later episode even pokes some fun at the show's lack of emphasis on sensational thrills by having Jones set out on foot after a suspect driving a tractor.)

In "The Black Book", a previously unknown painting by a legendary local artist turns up and causes quite a stir, with certain parties involved in its auction meeting rather grisly fates.  This is one of the more absorbing tales in the set as suspicion falls on a number of likely suspects in turn and we never know who the next victim will be.  There's also some fun business about how to detect a forged painting by its anachronistic details.  Gavan O'Herlihy (Richie's phantom older brother on "Happy Days") appears as an American art collector. 

"Secrets and Spies" concerns Barnaby's efforts to solve a murder which takes place among a group of MI6 agents, with their security clearance rendering them off-limits to him.  Here we see Barnaby, in his quiet, unassuming way, take on the bureaucratic authority that stands between him and his job and make it clear he's not someone to mess with.  Alice Krige (GHOST STORY, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT) gives an exciting guest performance.

Just as golf set the tone for the first story in the set, "Secrets and Spies" begins with a long cricket match, with a reluctant Barnaby having been drafted as an umpire.  The funny thing is, he starts to enjoy the feeling of power this gives him after awhile.  This is a good opportunity for Nettles to show the subtle humor in Barnaby's character, which he always plays with a twinkle in his eye.  Later, when some of the victims display wounds that appear to have been caused by a vicious mythical beast, Barnaby's dogged realism immediately discounts any "Hound of the Baskervilles" notions and focuses on less fanciful possibilities.

The final tale, "The Glitch", revolves around a biking club's outings in the English countryside and the rancor between them and the souped-up sports cars that force them off the road.  When one of the bike riders is run down, Barnaby suspects that it may have something to do with a dispute between a software designer who has discovered a glitch in his own creation, and the businessman who stands to lose millions if the program isn't marketed.  Again, there's plenty of mystery and smalltown intrigue here, along with Barnaby's one big action scene--he gets to hop behind the wheel of a muscle car and zoom to the rescue of the killer's final victim.  Still, with our hero struggling to keep the powerful machine on the road and honking at bike riders toodling along in front of him, it's not exactly a "Starsky and Hutch" moment.

The main appeal of "Midsomer Murders" isn't the mysteries themselves, but the pleasant, autumnal atmosphere and amusing character bits along the way.  (I'll admit, I have trouble just keeping all the suspects' names straight.)  In the supplemental material, Nettles points out the "extraordinarily silly murders" which give even the darkest plots a lighthearted undercurrent.  Another quote reveals his view of why the show has lasted so long:  "I sometimes wonder if the series is an odd reflection of English society.  We're so ill at ease with ourselves that we'd love to kill each other, and this provides a kind of safety valve." 

The 4-disc DVD set from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital stereo and English subtitles.  Each disc contains one separate episode (approx. 100 minutes each) and comes in its own slimline case.  Also included on each disc are text-based production notes, interviews, and trivia. 

Needless to say, if you're the impatient type who craves constant thrills, MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 17 will bore you to tears.  I don't know from cricket, but think of it like baseball--even though it's slow-moving and hardly anything exciting happens, there's just something fun about watching the players make their way around the bases.  Barnaby's methodical murder investigations have the same appeal, and when he gets to home plate at the end, it feels good.

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