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Monday, January 28, 2013

MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 21 -- DVD review by porfle

At the end of MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 20, we saw John Nettles' "Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby" pass the baton to his successor and fade away into a well-deserved retirement with his wife Joyce (Jane Wymark), bringing his 13-season run as rural England's finest homicide detective to a bittersweet end. 

With Acorn Media's MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 21, Tom Barnaby's younger cousin John takes over in the form of actor Neil Dudgeon, who, while capable enough, still has a ways to go before he'll even begin to feel like a regular part of the show.  Naturally, this is played up by the writers as the character of John Barnaby finds himself treated as an outsider by the citizens of his adopted village of Causton, not to mention his co-workers on the police force. 

This is especially true of his cousin's former partner, Sergeant Ben Jones (Jason Hughes), an ambitious young detective who had designs on taking over the vacated Chief Inspector's spot himself.  Hughes, in fact, is the main element of continuity within the series thus far, along with Barry Jackson as medical examiner Dr. George Bullard. 

Also helping to maintain a feeling of consistency with earlier seasons are the show's usual fine production values, intriguing stories, quaintly rustic setting, and often stellar guest cast.  Thus, while Dudgeon has his work cut out for him as the new guy trying to fit in, the show itself continues to cruise along like a well-oiled and finely-tuned machine.

As always, we also get to enjoy MIDSOMER MURDERS' droll humor, while missing the funny bits that were derived specifically from John Nettles' character--his love of a quiet Sunday afternoon in front of the telly, his matter-of-fact interactions with others, and his warm though sometimes prickly banter with wife Joyce. 

So far, attempts to humanize new guy John Barnaby consist of giving him a cute dog named Sykes with whom he carries on intimate conversations, and a wife named Sarah (Fiona Dolman) whose job as headmistress of the local primary school leaves her little time for such things.  Their chemistry as a believable married couple is pretty much nil, something the writers are seriously going to have to work on beyond the cursory attempts demonstrated in these episodes.

On the job, Dudgeon's character quickly establishes himself as a man not to be trifled with, much like his predecessor.  Stepping up to help keep the show on track is Hughes' Sgt. Jones, enjoying a larger role than before and displaying a marked improvement as a detective--no doubt putting to good use all the things he learned from his former mentor. 

The relationship between the new partners is a bit touchy at first, even to the point of Ben making light of the fact that John has a degree in psychology.  But it doesn't take long for them to begin to get used to each other and develop a mutual respect, with Ben acting as a go-between for John in his dealings with a dubious local citizenry.

The first episode in the set, "Death in the Slow Lane", is yet another story revolving around a murder which takes place during a festive local event, this time a classic car show held at an exclusive girls' school.  The guest cast includes venerable actor David Warner and a well-preserved Samantha Bond, who was Miss Moneypenny to Pierce Brosnan's 007.  Various unsavory goings on between her and her precocious schoolgirl daughter, including drug dealing to students, are topped by a decidedly unusual murder involving a car crank through the chest.

In "Dark Secrets", Barnaby and Jones investigate the suspicious death of an annoying social services employee who seems to have stuck his nose where it didn't belong.  The terrifically twisted and at times perverse plot features some wonderfully eccentric characters, including an outstanding Edward Fox and Phyllida Law (THE TIME MACHINE) as reclusive, addlebrained hoarders who never leave their dusty old mansion.  Also appearing as a mysterious "horse whisperer" named Jennifer is Haydn Gwynne of "Sherlock: The Great Game."

"Echoes of the Dead" guest stars Sarah Smart ("Monroe",
"Identity") and Pam Ferris ("Rosemary & Thyme") in a brutal serial killer tale that sets aside the show's trademark drollery for some genuine "CSI"-type gruesomeness.  In particular, some graphic shots of a dismembered corpse in a wicker basket are downright horrid for those not yet numbed by such sights.  With little of the series' usual rustic charm, this one resembles the standard, downbeat homicide-cop drama.

Finally, "The Oblong Murders" gives Sgt. Jones a chance to shine when he goes undercover as a member of a New Age cult in order to search for a missing girl.  We get to see a lot more of Jason Hughes here than usual--more, in fact, than I really needed to see during a brief rear-nudity shower scene--in an episode that comes closer to recapturing the traditional feel of the show. 

The 4-disc DVD set from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby stereo sound and English subtitles.  Each episode is on a separate disc in its own slimline case.  No extras.

MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 21 is still good fun for fans of this long-running chronicle of the bloodiest county in all of England, but with the absence of John Nettles, a key element of the show's appeal is jarringly missing.  Neil Dudgeon does his best as his replacement and is, in fact, quite good.  But as to how well he's going to fit into this already well-established series, the jury--as far as I'm concerned anyway--is still out.

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