Attention Murdoch Mysteries fans, there's a new detective on CBC and this one is better dressed and more adept with the cutting wit. Oh, it's all still set in the Toronto of the past so there's that comfort factor if you like the cozy period-piece shows. But this new detective is all wisecracks and fab outfits. No Murdoch melancholy here.
She's Frankie Drake, central character in Frankie Drake Mysteries (Monday, CBC 9 p.m.) and she's played with glorious oomph by Lauren Lee Smith. Frankie strides around Toronto of the 1920s with her private-eye sidekicks and, you know, specializes in crimes such as a string of pearls gone missing from a hotel room safe.
On the evidence of the first few episodes, it's a hoot and as silly as all get-out, but thanks to its charm and the frocks, skirts, suits and, well, the gorgeous furniture, it's frightfully good entertainment. Everyone involved goes in for manic cheeriness and swagger that's as bewitching as Frankie's fabulous red hair, which she tosses with exquisite skill and timing.
Frankie is a figure out of some Jimmy Cagney movie that your grandparents enjoyed and is nobody's fool. The daughter of a man of dubious reputation, she has an innate understanding of the criminal mindset.
The series does have connections with Murdoch Mysteries. It is produced by Shaftesbury, which also produces Murdoch, and veteran writers on that show are involved. As with Murdoch, it offers rich opportunities for Canadian actors to do some old-school, over-the-top melodramatic work. But here it's done with more of a wink and mischievous nod to the viewer.
It is set in 1920s Toronto, a time of flappers and jazz, and a time when women were enjoying an unusual level of freedom from traditional roles. Thus we enter the world of Drake Private Detectives, an all-female detective agency that Frankie runs with her sidekick, Trudy Clarke (Chantel Riley). They have help, of course, from various fringe characters, including "Morality Officer" Mary Shaw, played with characteristic pep and moxie by Rebecca Liddiard. See, Mary isn't allowed to be a full-fledged police officer. Women can't do that, but she's a cop in her bones and determined.
There is also an almightily zippy and delightful performance from Wendy Crewson in some episodes, playing a role that connects her directly to Frankie, but you'll have to watch to find out the details. Safe to say, there's some delicious sass and snark going on. And you just have to meet Flo (Sharron Matthews) the morgue attendant from comedy heaven.
Some close attention is paid to the real Toronto of the 1920s, in all its squalor, stiffness and dashes of sizzle. In the first episode, Ernest Hemingway, who worked at The Toronto Star, moseys into Frankie's office.
Admirable diligence is done in the looks and style of the period, too, without it being ostentatiously a style-opera. Is there a crossover with Murdoch? Yes, but that's not being given away here in this review. The show is, after all, a mystery series.
The 1920s setting has rich potential for any series. In some ways, the period it resembled is the 1960s – jazz was the equivalent of rock music, there was prosperity and inflammatory politics was everywhere. Mostly, as Frankie Drake Mysteries rightly suggests, it was notable for the shifting role of women. There is vast scope for strong female characters and this series plays gracefully with that.
The show breezes along and won't cause anybody to have deep thoughts. Nor will it put anybody to sleep. The sense of lightness and convivial wit is constant.
It is a pleasure to see a new Canadian series that aims directly for entertainment value and hits the target. It struts, as Frankie does, and it is entitled – the concept and content are carried off with great poise. Long may it run.