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Yannick Bisson as Detective Murdoch in Murdoch Mysteries.Darren Goldstein/CBC

It only took five episodes of CBC’s iconic series Murdoch Mysteries for Tansy Kelly Robson, a British political economist, to become “completely and utterly addicted.” A lover of Victorian dramas, she was originally attracted to its period charms. But soon enough, Robson (and her mom) fell in love with its eccentric characters.

“It balances mysteries with intelligence, and emotional depth with lively character dynamics,” says Robson, who lives in London. “It’s not just about brooding, troubled detectives, but people and relationships. It’s lovely and layered. This all makes it more human and relatable, and gets you on a deeper level.”

The one-hour dramedy, set in Toronto in the early 1900s, follows Detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) and his wife, Dr. Julia Ogden (Hélène Joy), along with several associates as they use innovative techniques to solve murders around the city. G-rated, kind and quirky – and incorporating a wealth of local history – one might call it a very Canadian series.

Well into its 17th season, Murdoch Mysteries is the most-watched Canadian scripted series in the country, and has been the No. 1 entertainment program on CBC TV for the past nine years. It’s also found fans all around the world: Today, the show can be seen in more than 100 countries, including China, Turkey, Italy, France and England. Interestingly, its most dedicated devotees – and about two-thirds of viewers – are women, of all ages and nationalities.

How did such an unabashedly homegrown show pull off such a feat?

For starters, the majority of its writers are women – which means this is a rare mystery series not entirely resting on the shoulders of its male lead.

All the women of the series have proven to be progressive in occupation and their ways of thinking. For instance, there is the ambitious Violet Hart who fights racism for love, spunky lawyer Effie Newsome, and Emily Grace, a feisty bisexual doctor passionate about women’s health and rights. Frankly, Murdoch can rarely solve a case without them.

The character of Julia, who is not in the original source novels written by Maureen Jennings, was added to show a woman “ahead of the times,” says executive producer Christina Jennings, ensuring a show set in the past could still resonate with today’s viewers.

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The character of Julia, played by Helene Joy, left, is not in the original source novels written by Maureen Jennings and was added to show a woman 'ahead of the times,' says executive producer Christina Jennings.Christos Kalohoridis/Acorn TV

“Ultimately, I believe the ratings are still so strong because we forged patterns 10 or 15 years ago. We’re seeing the daughters grow up and share the show with the mothers, and the mothers are sharing it with the grandparents,” says Jennings, who is also head of Murdoch production company Shaftesbury. “That mode of connection across generations is a rare thing in this world.”

And then there’s Bisson. As Robson says: “It helps that he’s gorgeous.”

The Montreal native has been playing Murdoch for more than 15 years, and has lent the character not only charm and boyishness, but a face that’s easy on the eyes. The actor acknowledges that, when he began his career, he was well aware his good looks were to his advantage.

“If it gets me in the door, I’ll take it,” the actor says. “[But] to be able to stand out of the crowd, there’s so much more that’s needed. Some days, I feel like I’m a student of the business and process of making good television, and then some days I feel like I’m an outright imposter and got here on looks alone. So, I do wrestle with it, but my focus has always been to be somebody that people want to watch, because 300 hours is a whole lot of hours.”

The calm, quiet, almost geeky, demeanor Bisson brings to Murdoch sets the character apart from other mainstream male detectives. He makes space for the women in his life, allowing them to be colourful and confident figures, and creating what is – despite the era – a very feminist narrative.

But despite the show’s many charged relationships, sex scenes don’t exist in this universe, which somehow ups the heat factor for its thirsty fans. As in all the best historical romances, yearning and fantasy are all you really need. Plus, says Jennings: “There’s something so sexy about just seeing people do the things that they’re really good at.”

On Murdoch, that means watching characters adapt to new technology and shifting social mores.

“One of the things that I think Murdoch shares with one of my favourite British series, Downton Abbey, is that investigation of the friction between tradition and change,” says Trish Williams, executive director of scripted content at CBC.

She gives how the detective handles being a Catholic in a Protestant city as an example. “It’s about pushing against the status quo. So many of the episodes are about historical figures that introduced change to society, and Murdoch embracing that, and really wanting to understand things from a different perspective.”

On that note, Murdoch Mysteries could use more diversity within its ranks, but it has nevertheless carved a positive and joyful niche for itself. Fans of all ages are active on online message boards, dreaming up their own illustrated stories and tie-in tarot cards. CBC Gem even premiered a modern-day spinoff for kids, called Macy Murdoch (William’s great-great-great-granddaughter), last year.

All these seasons later, Bisson has yet to tire of the character. Which is lucky, because a rare day goes by when he isn’t stopped by a Murdoch admirer. They often talk of watching the show with loved ones, he says.

“Many will share that it’s often the thing that they did with a grandparent or parent in their final days. It’s quite moving. You just never know how far into people’s living rooms we go.”

Fans concerned that the show – which just concluded its 17th season – will come to a close any time soon need not worry. Bisson and Mitchell say they’re having too much fun to stop.

As Mitchell puts it: “We’ve got history on our side; there’s no shortage of stories.”

Murdoch Mysteries is available to watch for free in Canada on CBC Gem.

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