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Sunday, August 4, 2013

MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 22 -- DVD review by porfle

As fans of the Brit-TV detective series "Midsomer Murders" well know, the show's original main character, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), has been replaced by his younger cousin, John (Neil Dudgeon).  For those following the action via Acorn Media's DVD releases,  this momentous changeover occurred in the previous collection.  Now, with the release of MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 22, which contains four feature-length stories on as many discs, we find the new DCI Barnaby still struggling to fit into the show even as it continues to hum along like a well-oiled machine around him.

It's still pretty much of a can't-miss setup: veteran homicide detective from the city gets assigned to cover the pastoral Midsomer County beat, where the murder rate is so high it's a wonder any of the locals manage to make it to their mailbox and back without getting run through with a pitchfork or bludgeoned to death.  It's the same sort of stuff that keeps people like Miss Marple busy, although these days there are so many detectives nosing around these picturesque little villages that it seems the citizenry must work overtime committing murders just to keep them all occupied. 

John Barnaby, fortunately,  is up to the task, as is his junior partner Detective Sergeant Ben Jones (Jason Hughes),  now the show's last remaining original character and link to the past.  DS Jones is still smarting from being passed over for his former boss' vacated job and doesn't hold the new guy in quite the elevated esteem as the old one,  which makes for a more casual (and occasionally more abrasive) relationship between the two.  With each flash of deductive brilliance,  however, DCI Barnaby continues to win over DS Jones a little at a time and earn his grudging respect. 

But as Hughes' character becomes  more prominent and well-grounded than ever, Dudgeon's Barnaby finds himself still feeling his way around for a personality to settle into.  Part of this is due to the writers inability to give him all the gravitas we expect while playing up his more humorous side to an excessive degree.  It's nice to see him being less stiff all the time while on the job, but his dour attitude has been replaced by sort of a permanently goofy look. 

Unlike former stars John Nettles and Jane Wymark,  this Barnaby and his cold-fish wife Sarah (Fiona Dolman) continue to have next to no chemistry whatsoever in the domestic scenes, which play up the homicide cop's human side but end up feeling like filler instead.  Her bossy, almost dismissive attitude is intended to supply humorous contrast between how assertive John is on the job while lapsing into a more lightheartedly submissive attitude at home, but it isn't working.  The writers need to insert some more warmth, sexual tension,  and genuine affection into this relationship, quick. 

Thankfully, however, Neil Dudgeon is a talented, likable actor who seems capable of eventually overcoming such difficulties and settling into the role while his character becomes more at home in Midsomer and on the show itself.  This Barnaby is still an outsider, but that abrasive element in his dealings with dubious locals continues to add spice to their encounters.  And seeing how twisted and corrupt these rural folk can really be underneath their veneer of normalcy, sometimes revealing the depths of their depravity at the slightest provocation, is a major reason that this series is still fun to watch.

The first story,  "The Sleeper Under the Hill", begins with the now-obligatory bizarre murder, this time of a farmer found gutted in the center of a Stonehenge-like stone circle which local druids have been using as a worship site before his announcement to plow up the entire area for planting. 

Naturally,  the druids are chief suspects, but this is cast into doubt when one of their own becomes the next victim.  The farmer's two-timing wife, who has been having an affair with her fencing instructor and stands to inherit her late husband's fortune, is also under suspicion, as is a local cop who once worked with DS Jones in their earlier days on the force.  It's a twisted, atmospheric tale with plenty of red herrings to keep us guessing.

"Night of the Stag" opens with one of those colorful village festivals--here, a May Day celebration replete with plenty of fresh-brewed apple cider--which goes sour when the vat that everyone  (including DCI Barnaby) has been drinking from is found to have a dead body floating in it.  From this nauseating beginning is launched an investigation that uncovers a darker local tradition, "Stag Night", resulting in more murders and a rash of attempted rapes which our heroes must stop before it's too late.

The shocking murder of an aged nun gets "A Sacred Trust" off to a morbid start while continuing the show's often rather curdled outlook on organized religion.  In fact, the remaining three nuns and a visiting priest who regularly hears their confessions seem just as shifty and suspicious as the village's juvenile delinquents and lowlifes, while a new character, forensic examiner Kate Wilding (Tamzin Malleson, who replaces Barry Jackson's "Dr. Bullard"), proudly announces at one point--for no particular reason--that she is "a rationalist and an atheist."  Still, it's a corker of a murder mystery no matter what side of the fence you're on as far as that goes.

The final tale, "A Rare Bird", is enlivened by the comical  antics of a group of passionate birdwatchers currently at odds with each other over one member's claim to have seen an extremely rare Ugandan bird in the nearby forest.  The forest is also host to a rash of gruesome murders which may or may not be bird-related.  Suspects include one victim's pregnant wife, who seems to have been unfaithful since, unbeknownst to her,  her late husband had gotten a vasectomy before their marriage.  As usual, there are a number of delightful twists and turns before the final revelation of the true killer. 

The four-disc DVD set from Acorn Media (Blu-Ray is 2 discs) is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles.  As a bonus,  there's a 34-minute featurette,  "Midsomer Murders in Conversation", which includes interviews with Neil Dudgeon, Jason Hughes,  and various other members of the cast and crew.

While always a major part of the fun, of course, the "Midsomer Murders" themselves usually take a backssea to the interplay between the characters.  With MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 22, the bits of business between the new Barnaby and a still-dubious D.S. Jones,  along with the always fascinating rogue's gallery of eccentric villagers, still provide most of the enjoyable moments.  But the show's continuing search for a handle on its lead character needs to be resolved once and for all.

Buy it at
DVD (4 discs)
Blu-Ray (2 discs)

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