Friday, November 22, 2013

Streaming tip: Aussie MISS FISHER'S MURDER MYSTERIES offers Melbourne in the roaring 20s

Do you remember, if you're old enough, the early American television mystery series Mr. and Mrs. North? If not, maybe younger folk will recall Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote. These may come to mind when watching the nostalgic and much more elaborately designed and costumed Australian television series, MISS FISHER'S MURDER MYSTERIES. Taking place in Melbourne during those roaring 20s (probably a tad less roaring than in New York City or Paris), the series stars the lovely and witty Essie Davis (shown at left and below) as Phyrne (pronounced Fry-knee) Fisher, a woman of the world who has returned to her native Australia to... well, we'll see.

Now streamable via Netflix, this (I've now seen four of the first dozen episodes from season one) wonderfully engaging show features hour-long individual mystery stories linked by the titular Miss Fisher, who solves each one rather in the mode that both Pam North (played with utter delight and cockeyed optimism by the lovely Barbara Britton) and Jessica Fletcher (Ms Lansbury's character) managed to do. The major difference is how much has changed in terms of what can now be discussed and shown on prime-time TV in the 60 years since the Norths investigated and the 30 years since Murder, She Wrote came on the scene. Pam and Jerry North would be shocked at the kind of stuff in which Miss Fisher gets herself involved.

Themes run the gamut from matricide and the Fagin-like "adoption" of orphans to labor unrest and how homosexuality was treated in Australia back in the 20s. Missing sisters figure prominently in some of the episodes, as do religion and the Roman Catholic Church. Yet none of this is bashed home. No: Phryne and her television writers (around 12 of them) and directors (maybe 15 over several seasons) handle it all with aplomb and fun, rather than a heavy hand. Still, it is television, after all. But better, entertainment-wise, than much else we've seen. (I prefer this series over the much-touted Downton Abbey, where there are enough coincidentally overheard conversations to choke the proverbial horse.)

The cinematography here (in hi-def on Netflix) is gorgeous and quite atmospheric, and the costumes are especially fun. (Watch for Phryne's Latvian anarchist outfit in episode four, season one.) Phryne herself is quite a characters: a genuinely good woman, rich as Croesus, but with all the instincts of an honest-to-god progressive, and the captivating Miss Davis brings her to fine life.

The series is great fun, not least because it seems that it actually adds to its regular cast as it moves along, bringing with it all sorts of charming characters: the young maid who was fired by the villain in episode one is then hired by Phryne, and appears thereafter; the orphan (Ruby Rees Wemyss, below) from episode two finds a permanent home with our heroine; and so on.

There is also the very welcome opportunity to see fine actresses we have loved over the years -- Wendy Hughes (in the photo above) and Miriam Margolyes, to name just two -- in roles here. And the interplay between Phryne and the rest of the cast -- her superior butler, charming maid, the shy constable who is so very attracted to that maid, and the rather sexy police inspector (Nathan Page, below) with whom Phryne shares cases and seems somewhat attracted to -- proves consistent and delightful fun.

So, yes, I am hooked and will finish this 13-episode series (Netflix at this point only offers the first season) with great relish. I suggest you at least give it a sampling (try to watch 2 to 3 episodes before you toss in the towel, as they seem to grow better as they go on).


Anonymous said...

I have 2 more to go before season 1 is over on Netflix. I hope I will be able to see season 2 the same way. It's terrific!!

James van Maanen said...

Thanks, Anon -- I suspect you will be able to see Season 2 in the same manner. But not quite yet. They've done the next season, but it always take Netflix awhile to arrange/contract their showings....

Lee Liberman said...

I'm also reminded of Miss Marple serialized on PBS, who like Phryne, has to worm her way into a slightly annoyed imvestigator's good graces each episode through clever sleuthing. Same formula but this stylish flapper-era version is fresh and fun. Will Phryne and her handsome chief inspector ever get it on, I wonder?

James van Maanen said...

Ah -- a comment from my co-writer, Lee! Yes, this one is indeed Miss Marple-like (I didn't see that PBS series, only those old Margaret Rutherford movies), and I suspect that our Phryne has similarities to just about every female sleuth who ever graced the boards and airways throughout theater, radio, movie and TV history. But, as you point out: oh, those roaring 20s in Melbourne! (And stick with it to learn the answer to your final question....)