Global Gems: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

Americans have a long tradition of devouring British television, from Prime Suspect & Monty Python to Downton Abbey & Doctor Who. The explosion of Internet streaming services means that now we can explore the best among the offerings from other countries too. Global Gems highlights some of our favorites.

The show: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

Country of origin: Australia

Status & availability: Seasons 1 & 2 have aired in Australia; season 3 will air in 2015. In the US, season 1 is available for streaming on Netflix and seasons 1 & 2 can be streamed on Acorn.tv.

Why you’ll like it: Take Castle (with its best repartee), swap the leads’ genders, multiply by Downton Abbey, and add a twist of the best 1940s’ screwball heroines mashed up with James Bond’s ingenuity. Serve in martini glass while wearing 1920s’ couture.

The premise: As the title suggests, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is a classic murder mystery procedural in the spirit of such classics as Prime Suspect, Murder She Wrote, and Inspector Poirot. It’s gleefully retro, and revels in its comfortable and conventional structure.

It’s 1928 and the titular character, The Honorable Miss Phryne Fisher, has recently returned home to Melbourne, Australia. Miss Fisher, a poor Australian by birth, inherited her title and fortune after World War I devastated the male branch of her family back in England. She’s a thoroughly modern woman, happily unmarried in her late thirties, who loves driving fast cars, wearing fancy clothes, and making love to beautiful men, to the consternation of some. Played to sassy and seductive perfection by Essie Davis, Miss Fisher has an impossible arsenal of skills, which prove well-suited to her decision (made partially out of aristocratic boredom) to become a discreet yet unflappable “lady detective”.

The yin to Miss Fisher’s yang is the stoic Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), a homicide investigator first exasperated by, then resigned to, and finally entranced by Miss Fisher’s interference in his investigations. The two leads have an easy chemistry that makes their banter seem natural (sample line from Jack to Miss Fisher: “Don’t be remorseful. It confuses me.”), and it grows stronger as their affection for each other does.

The pitch perfect cast extends beyond its two leads to the hodge-podge ‘family’ of associates Miss Fisher assembles around her. Foremost is Dot (Ashleigh Cummings), her companion and Girl Friday, fiercely loyal despite her religious horrification towards the most outrageous of Miss Fisher’s antics. Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), Jack’s number two, is blushingly and stammeringly enamored with Dot. Bert (Travis McMahon) and Cec (Anthony Sharpe), two fervently leftist cab drivers, hang around Miss Fisher’s kitchen and take on the odd investigative job. Miss Fisher’s best friend, Mac (Tammy Macintosh), a doctor who happens to be a lesbian, serves as a useful liason within the medical world. Rounding out the cast are Miss Fisher’s indulgent, jolly butler who is fittingly named Mr. Butler (Richard Bligh), her ward Jane (Ruby Rees Wemyss), and her perpetually disapproving Aunt Prudence (the always entertaining Miriam Margolyes, Harry Potter’s Professor Sprout).

Melbourne, a scruffy yet sophisticated city on the outskirts of the British commonwealth, serves as a sort of non-human character. The shows’ keen sense of place enhances the atmosphere as the characters delve into parts of the city where its gritty underbelly isn’t quite far enough from its glitzy uppercrust for anyone’s comfort.

Every episode starts the same way – with a murder or the discovery thereof – and ends with Miss Fisher and Jack celebrating their success. As in any procedural, the quality of the episodes vary with the case at hand, with some requiring a significant suspension of disbelief. Still, most of the cases deftly manage to blend period conceits – abusive nunnery laundries, speakeasies, rigid etiquette – with commentary on modern concerns such as labor protections, race, and women’s rights. Some of the best episodes in the first season deal with the single serialized plotline, which is the unresolved disappearance of Miss Fisher’s sister during their impoverished childhood. Perhaps most impressive to me is the way in which the show never forgets the undercurrent of post-World War I fragility and trauma that still haunted the world ten years later. It’s a world less innocent than the one that existed fourteen years before, and all of the characters who endured the war (including Miss Fisher, who drove an ambulance in France) are marked by the experience.

While the show is based upon Kerry Greenwood’s series of Phryne Fisher mystery novels (worth a look in their own right), it isn’t a perfect copy, taking liberties with characters and plot that upset some of the books’ most enthusiastic fans. However, the show has one key advantage over the books: THE COSTUMES. Miss Fisher’s gowns are sumptuous, elegant, and myriad. Some are antiques but most are meticulous recreations by the insanely talented costume designer Marion Boyce. This is a show that is meant to be watched and paused and examined, glass of wine in hand. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries isn’t perfect in everything it does, but it does do everything in perfect style.