If you haven’t heard of the television show “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mystery,” you aren’t alone. (Dons pair of thick rimmed glasses.) More than likely, if you know what show I’m talking about it’s either because you are Australian, you were referred by an Australian or you are particularly adventurous with your Netflix selections.
The show (which is based on a series of books by Kerry Greenwood) has a refreshing setting in 1920’s Melbourne, Australia. The titular character is “The Honourable” Miss Phryne (Fri-nee) Fisher (Essie Davis). Miss Fisher is the daughter of an English peer (who is a buffoon) and she is, by extension, fabulously wealthy. After serving in France with an ambulance unit during WWI, she scoots down to the land that blessed us with the Bloomin Onion and stayed for the unending supply of murders in need of solving. The premise is an “adventure-of-the-week” procedural with personal relationship narratives carrying through the series. Together with her eternal love-foil, Detective Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), Miss Fisher sashays through a slew of murder mysteries with glamorous, and often raunchy, ease. Miss Fisher is the brazen, coy & scintillating personification of the women’s lib movement in the 1920’s, and in many ways, of today. Instead of lobbying in front of parliament for women’s rights, she simply does as she pleases and damns the social norms with a blown kiss and a wink. Her manners are textbook, her wardrobe is the fiercest on television, and her intellect routinely humiliates the male dominated upper class, or whomever she happens to share the screen with, really. However, she never sneers or bemoans her station as a woman in the time period. She embraces it, like an underdog in a football game; she uses it to her advantage at every opportunity. Any person, man or woman, who becomes close with Miss Fisher quickly learns to respect her abilities – no matter how surprising, or unlikely they may may be.
The show itself is a delightfully irreverent, if sometimes incoherent, romp. It’s strong suit is an abundance of infectious energy. What it often lacks is clarity and nuance. The mysteries themselves often unravel in the most improbable and convoluted methods. I’m a big believer in “suspension of disbelief” and that trait is a prerequisite in order to enjoy ‘Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries’. It’s a tongue-in-cheek historical soap opera. It’s more “Buck Rogers” than “Days of Our Lives” in it’s fantasticalness; a program where each episode conjures a more improbable scenario than the last. There is a murder on the dance-floor of a jazz club Miss Fisher happens to be at, then a circus worker is killed and Miss Fisher must pose as a magician’s assistant to crack the case; and another episode features Egyptology and a weird cult revolving around reincarnation and human sacrifice. Like I said, “suspension of disbelief.” I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that a large draw of what appears to be a sizable female audience (my wife included) is the “will they or won’t they” (also known as the “Ugh, kiss her on her damn mouth already!”) relationship between Miss Fisher and her detective counterpart Jack Robinson. To the casual male viewer, Jack may have more in common with a bowl of plastic fruit (flashes of Edward Cullen levels of withdrawn under-reaction) but over the course of the show’s 3 seasons he is given an opportunity to do something more than to gruffly reply to Miss Fisher in his gravelly Aussie baritone. As is often the way with television as opposed to film, characters are given more opportunity to develop. If this were a film series I’d be remarking on how Jack Robinson was nothing more than a delightfully appealing, yet waxy and orally disapponting, apricot. Instead he is given a personal history and a litany of scenarios to make moral and personal decisions that affect him in tangible ways. He’s no Jesse Pinkman, but as a side-kick, he’s more than adequate.
The two other supporting characters I’ll mention here are Officer Hugh Collins (Hugo Jonhstone-Burt) and Dot Williams (Ashley Cummings). Hugh is the slow and lovably mule faced assistant to Detective Jack Robinson. Essentially his role could be taken on by a well trained golden retriever and all the traits to describe him would remain the same. Loyal, honest, patient, devoted, attentive and possessing only a rudimentary understanding of the world around him. In all fairness, his character is allowed more dimension in the show’s most recent season, but he is still devoid of almost any relatable qualities. Dot Williams is Miss Fisher’s attendant and protege. She is also a much more interesting character than Hugh. She is the antithesis of Phryne Fisher. Timid and quailing, Dot is meant to represent the repressed woman of the time. I don’t even mind the heavy handedness because timid people are not un-common and many of them are also drawn to strong personalities, like Miss Fisher’s. Through the course of the series we are blessed with the opportunity to watch Dot grow into her own woman, with the guidance of Miss Fisher, of course. The relief is that she doesn’t become a sassy and snarky spitting image of her mentor. She becomes confident but not cocky, and sure of herself as a woman but never lewd. She learns to cope with the grim realities of the world by exposures to horrific crimes but never becomes jaded or cynical. In a show that has so many far fetched ideas and themes, Dot Williams is an understated and pitch perfect character. She’ll never shout for screen time or dominate the frame, but she is well written and acted.
The program’s weak points may outweigh the jazz age rush, though. Too much of the show relies on quickly belted exposition to move the story along (much like a soap opera) and not enough time visually detailing the information necessary for an audience to keep pace with it’s protagonists. The fact that each episode is filmed in just 6 days can not help. It’s infinitely easier for a character to explain everything in a 1 take stream of consciousness than to go through the laborious task of multiple camera setups for a minute and a half of screen time. Have no illusions, this show will not win Emmys (outside of costume design, perhaps) and will never cause you to think about it for more than a minute after you turn it off. But that does not mean that isn’t some of the best fun you’ll have watching a television show. It’s a popsicle on a hot summer day. Refreshing, enjoyable for the moment, but at it’s core, utterly empty and pointless.
The first 3 seasons are available for streaming on Netflix. Season 4 is in pre-production now in Australia and airs on ABC, Au.
A Jazz Era Killer
While it won't blow anybody away in any of it's area of operation, 'Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries' delivers a rip-roaring good time in an easily bingeable format that you won't regret committing to.